Monday, 4 March 2013

BIRMINGHAM’S DIVORCE RATE: ARE THE “SQUEEZED MIDDLE” REALLY TO BLAME?

Perhaps it is some intrinsic loyalty I hold to the city I serve, however, I couldn’t help but feel slightly annoyed at the negative press the city of Birmingham received last week. (Birmingham Mail ‘Birmingham is branded divorce capital of Birmingham’ 24th February 2013 http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/incoming/birmingham-branded-divorce-capital-britain-1344289)

In particular the author seems to have, in my view, unfairly stereotyped those families who form part of the politically labelled “squeezed middle.” It seems that the source of the author’s article attributes firm blame on the 2,799 Decree Absolutes made between October 2011 to September 2012 in Birmingham on families living in “leafy suburbs”. The source goes on to say that:

“crumpled by the credit crunch, affluent couples put a strain their marriages while working holidays longer hours and taking business home to pay for plush homes, 4x4s, private school fees and lavish holidays.”

Although on a cursory glance the divorce rates in Birmingham do not paint the city in a positive light, the headline fails to allude to the divorce rates of Greater London, which exceeded those of Birmingham. Moreover, on a more detailed analysis we see that the areas such as Solihull are included within the catchment. Despite the ‘middle class’ being shouldered with most of the blame, there is a complete absence of a report on the demographics which make up the Decree Absolute rate.
This makes me wonder what is the real purpose of the article?

Is there an underlying motive?

There is no doubt that the article represents an overriding political drive to divert separating parties to mediation and to demonise family lawyers.  Whilst (as my clients will testify) I am a firm advocate of parties engaging in the process of mediation (if possible) and to encourage early and amicable settlements, I resent a false presentation of the process, which places mediation in competition with good legal advice. With particular interest I note the article claims that:

“The average cost of settling disputes through mediation is £500 and the process takes 110 days….Those unfortunate enough to be caught in a Kramer v Kramer courtroom battle (a lengthy and exceptional case, with complex issues, litigated in the High Court) will fork-out £4,000 and wait 435 days before their decree nisi comes through.” (brackets added)

As any good lawyer will tell you, each case turns on its own facts.  What is however particularly disappointing is the allusion that, by attending mediation, it will result in Decree Nisi (which is the first stage of a divorce) being made at an earlier date. This is simply inaccurate. In reality, in almost all cases, whether the parties engage in mediation has little relevance or impact on the timescales to Decree Nisi. Indeed, drafting errors made by those representing themselves (or indeed sloppy drafting by lawyers) is often a source of delay in parties being able to encompass any agreement reached in mediation into a financial consent order.

If mediation is to be a long term solution (particularly in cases where the pool assets and issues go beyond the realms of ‘straightforward’), it is essential that each party is guided by good quality legal advice. Sensationalised press, which seeks to pitch a competition between lawyers and mediators, whilst isolating those suburban families for criticism is simply counter productive and represents a completely false presentation of the family justice system.

I advise on all aspects of matrimonial law. I regularly assist parties in facilitating early settlements and legalising agreements reached in mediation.