Andrew spent four years battling in and out of court to sort out a fair and equitable financial settlement on divorce and fighting hard to ensure his kids weren’t taken away to live in another part of the country
SplittingUp.com founder Joanne Major hears a dad's story - of how Andrew considered suicide before seeing a counsellor and receiving some life changing advice.
Going to court is never easy, but there are alternatives such as appointing your own Judge for a private financial dispute resolution hearing or arbitration.
Joanne speaks to relationship counsellor Graeme Armstrong about the benefits of counselling when facing life changing issues like divorce, and then discusses what it’s like to go to court - or another route - with Anna Hunter, a specialist divorce and children’s solicitor at Major Family Law.
Hello, and thanks for joining me again on the SplittingUp.com podcast. I’m Joanne Major – a family lawyer in the north east of England – and I set up the website to help people going through a separation or divorce and who just don’t know where to turn for help and advice.
In each episode of the podcast we hear from someone who’s been on this journey and has made it out the other side. Today we’ll be hearing about counselling – and how important it is not to “get lost in your loss” and also about the process of going to court and what the alternatives could be.
But before we start I’ve just got to say that as everybody’s situation is different, although our podcast is intended to be helpfully informative and thought-provoking it cannot be taken as legal advice – for more information on our disclaimer please go to the website’s podcast page.
So first, let's hear Andrew's story. As always, it's not his real name. But he has some important things to share. His breakup more than a decade ago was acrimonious - so much so he spent four years in and out of court, as he and his then wife tried to entangle their joint business, their finances and decide what was best for their children who were eight and 10 when everything started falling apart,
I had no understanding of divorce. It was something that happened to other people, not something that happened to me and not something that had happened in our family up until that point. I think the mental health side came to a crux when I was out walking the dogs and got to a bridge and thought, well, I'll just have a sit on this and jump off the side of it there. Being a more probably slightly macho man and decided that this wasn't the way I was, I was heading out of things that that pulled me round at that point. But without an influence from a from a close friend, I probably would have continued in my own headspace and not have looked outside for assistance.
We tried counselling for as as a couple. But I then was convinced by a good friend to speak to a counsellor personally. Within that first hour, it turned around and the advice that I collected at that time was so fundamental to how I behaved through the divorce and how I now feel six, seven years after the final bit of the court proceedings .The biggest thing he said was just be happy with the choices that you make, because if you're happy, even if somebody may say to you, "well, you could have got more you could have done this, you should have done that," if you're happy, then you're gonna go away from being happy and continue to be happy with it.
When you're in the depths of it, you want to fight for every little Hoover and every little kettle or this kind of thing. And at the end of it it's a kettle and a Dyson - it's not the end of anybody's life, you can go and buy another one from from a shop. So try not to just to get sucked into doing that. And the other bit of advice that, again, I still clung to through it all, was try and treat people how you'd like to be treated yourself, which became harder at times.
We had a series of court appearances, it became clear that that was the only point where we were going to get resolution. My experiences within the court building itself were were relatively positive - expensive - but relatively positive that the common sense prevailed in the financial side and common sense prevailed in the children's matter which had been brought about with a desire to move to further down the country with her new partner. We opposed that, as a children had opposed that.
I was very sceptical. I'd seen the bits in the papers that the woman would always win, the man was always on the backfoot or always was going to lose. And I felt very vindicated and supported within that side both from the legal team and the barrister and the judge with her decision making. For both the girls they've stayed here in this area. So the children's schooling was not interrupted.
I was very lucky and privileged with the friends and friendships that I had from people I've known for a lot of years. But most of all the biggest support was was with mum and dad. I felt that I was a failure that we were children who had never seen a separated or even a harsh word between parents. I think don't hide away with this if this has happened or something's going on, talk to people and talk to your nearest and dearest because they they may not fully understand but they will always support you and provide counsel for you.
I'm now just coming up to six years into relationship with a another lady who has really taught me how you can love and be loved and be supported.
Thanks so much, Andrew for talking us through what happened and what was a pretty testing divorce. One of the things that Andrew mentioned was counselling, and although couple counselling together with his wife didn't work, he did find one to one counselling extremely useful. Remember what Andrew said: "It was fundamental to how he behaved during the divorce. And once it was over." Sage words. Well with me today's relationship counsellor Graham Armstrong, who worked for many years in the senior team at the charity RELATE in Newcastle and Graham now works privately as a relationship counsellor. Hello, Graham.
Graeme Armstrong 6:33
Hi, Joanne. Yes, thank you for inviting me.
Super. And it's great to have you with us today. Graham. Could you perhaps just explain to the listeners what exactly is a relationship counsellor?
Graeme Armstrong 6:44
So thanks, Joanne. Yes, I've been a relationship counsellor now for about 22 years. I worked as a couple counsellor working with couples, individuals and families helping to put together difficult or broken relationships and sometimes trying to enhance relationships that had things like communication difficulties, and so on.
When we were listening to Andrew's story there, he was talking about how he found one to one counselling very, very helpful. Can you explain why that might be the case?
Graeme Armstrong 7:20
Well, one of the things that I know about divorce - separation divorces - are generally there are four aspects to divorce: the legal, the financial, the parental and the emotional. And it's this last one that can really help you either sail through the separation or divorce, or really get you kind of snarled up in the process. Often you really can get kind of caught up in process because it is a huge emotional investment in a marriage or a couple's relationship.
Yes, that's that's really interesting. Graham and I know from clients in the past, I remember when you and I first met some years ago, and I remember you saying something to me, which I've repeated to many, many clients since over the years, and that was this. And that was, you said to me that involving a relationship counsellor doesn't necessarily change the outcome. But what it does do is sometimes just help people who are in a difficult place, get into a better place sooner than if they had just been left doing it themselves.
Graeme Armstrong 8:28
Sure. All the kind of research and the studies seem to suggest that counselling in general helps you get to where you need to get to 80%, quicker, faster. And, more importantly, not just about the quicker and faster bit, but clearer, as well. There's the idea that with a relationship counsellor, who has kind of been there before, in a sense and can help guide you through, can help pace you through, you can get to a place of clarity, you can get to a place where you're not so snarled up, not so emotionally caught up in what's happening, which is, you know, very, very easy to do. Very, very easy to do.
And I suppose really, Andrew, what he was saying in his story was maybe fairly typical of gentleman and without sort of trying to sound sexist about it, you know, he made some pretty candid points didn't he about well, you know, I was a sort of traditional macho guy. I didn't feel that I could really talk to anyone. I think women, generally speaking, might open up and talk to friends more, necessarily, than guys. Is this your experience Graham?
Graeme Armstrong 9:32
Yes, there's a big difference, and a very important set of differences between the way men experience and process separation and divorce, and women do. Men can find it harder to seek help. Men can be for example, can be quite plan-based, and that separation and divorce derails and devastates their plans. Men can lose their identity, and in turn their physical and mental health can take a dive through separation or divorce. So whoever you are, you probably need to talk about this, whether you're a man or woman, but even wherever you are, you've never been in this situation before. So it's good to talk to an expert, confidentially. It's good to talk to an expert who knows the emotional, territory, who is professionally been there before, and can help guide you through helping you to, well, express what you can't express.Joanne:
What else can a relationship counsellor help with?Graeme Armstrong:
Well, a relationship counsellor will be able to steer you through some of the most common responses to divorce, help you to respond differently, that's really important. It's really easy to find that you can't see the wood for the trees in all this. You don't want to get lost in your loss. You know, you will not respond to the breakup in the same way as your partner either. Men and women process things in different ways. Actually, so do men and men and women and women in same sex relationships, it's not so different. So a relationship counsellor can help you reflect back over your relationship and work through any feelings of well say, guilt, or remorse, and offer advice around this really most stressful situation.Joanne:
And what about help for the children?Graeme Armstrong:
Yeah, well counselling can help you and your children cope with the change in family. Many children and teenagers - and even older children, in the 20s - can feel frightened, angry and confused about a divorce. This is their family, this is...they expected this to go on and on ad infinitum. No matter how rocky they sometimes thought their parents relationship is or was. And sometimes they can feel, wrongly, but they can feel responsible for the breakup too. So counselling can help guide your family through this getting self-help to help your children.Joanne:
Yes, it's a bit like the analogy, isn't it when you're sitting on an aeroplane and before you take off for the safety? I think you know what I'm gonna say here. We've talked about this in the past Graham and indeed it's something I mentioned to clients, and it's about in the safety briefing when they say that in the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone next to you. And I think that's essentially really what you're saying. Isn't it really about relationship counselling?Graeme Armstrong:
Yeah, in a nutshell, in case of emergency breathe.Joanne:
So what are the legal benefits of getting counselling Graham?Graeme Armstrong:
Oh, yeah, counselling can help you work better with your lawyer. Counselling is a place separate from legal negotiations where you can process the emotional issues of divorce, and emotional investment in a relationship is one of the biggest emotional investments you're going to have. So you will likely to make better judgments, better decisions about, for example, access to children, financial settlements, when you clear about how you feel that what is best for you emotionally.Joanne:
So any any tips Graham for the listeners?Graeme Armstrong:
Yeah, get help. It's not wrong to get help. Take your time to process this - this is really important - don't rush through this, take your time to process things. If you have them, keep connecting with the children. Don't, unless you're already in one, rush into a new relationship - don't feel as if you have to rush into a new relationship. Andrew on the podcast certainly didn't, and really seem to benefit from the time he took to get into a new relationship. Try to maintain a more businesslike relationship with your ex partner. And personally for you, find things that you enjoy doing and do them. You know, divorce, you've got to remember, there is an end - sit doesn't feel like it - but there is an end to it.Joanne:
And I suppose Graeme, it's always it's always good to get the white elephant out in the room. What about costs? Because a lot of people might think, well, you know, I don't want to approach anyone because I couldn't afford it?Graeme Armstrong:
Sure, sure. For an individual, for a '50 minute hour', as we call it in counselling, it costs £60 for the counselling session, but one of the things you've got to really bear in mind here of course, is what might be the cost if you don't get help?Joanne:
That was Graham Armstrong, relationship counsellor, and if you'd like to get in touch with him to arrange a session in person or remotely Graham's details are on the website, SplittingUp.com, along with other experts in counselling, and a bit more background reading.
One thing that Andrew mentioned was that he found going to court helpful in getting him the very best outcome, but it did take four years and decisions can go the other way, as it did, of course with his ex partner. So now I'd like to talk through the process of going to court and some of the alternatives out there such as private financial dispute resolution - employing a private judge to decide - but also things such as collaborative law and arbitration. So to help us talk through all of these different options, I'm joined today by Anna Hunter, a specialist divorce and children's lawyer at Major Family Law. Hello, Anna.Anna Hunter:
So let's start with what's involved when going to court.Anna Hunter:
So in the majority of cases that come to us, we start with the premise that we try to avoid going to court if at all possible. And the majority of couples, they do manage to reach an agreement without needing to issue an application. But there are some couples for a variety of reasons where agreement isn't possible via solicitors or between themselves. So for example, where one or both of the separating couple have a fixed idea of the outcome they want, and there's no flexibility in the discussions, or somebody might have an outcome that they want to achieve, which really isn't realistic, or achievable. In some cases, emotions can run really high, which makes negotiating really difficult, or or there can be a reluctance to share information. So it's very difficult to feel comfortable in looking at settlement terms. And in these types of cases, court is often a necessary and useful step.
So whilst for some court can be a scary prospect, there are people like Andrew, who find it helpful, because it provides a structured timetable to negotiations and discussions. There are fixed court appointments, and being in court provides comfort to some people that there is a clear end point in sight. Ultimately, if no agreement is reached, a judge will make a determination which will end the proceedings.Joanne:
That's great. Thank you for explaining that Anna, but there are some downsides to going to court as well aren't there?Anna Hunter:
Oh, absolutely. there are downsides. Proceedings can be stressful and of course, costly. There can also be delays: the court is not a perfect process, and some people can also find court really intimidating, it's difficult going into a court building. Some people find it uncomfortable being in the same room as their ex partner. And in asking the court to determine what a financial settlement looks like, there is an element of personal control over the terms of the agreement that is actually taken away.Joanne:
Yes, that's right. And I think as you were saying earlier that many clients really certainly, when dealing with financial matters associated with the breakdown of marriage often try and reach their own agreements or with the aid of mediation or with some negotiation with solicitors to try and narrow the issues and get to the point of reaching agreement. And certainly from my experience, in our experience Anna, I would say that's probably the majority of clients, isn't it? And it's probably few cases that actually end up being determined by a judge at court?Anna Hunter:
Yes, I think that's right. A lot of people will actually come to us with their own agreement asking for us to endorse it or give that give an overview of the terms of settlement. Some people find that going into mediation is really helpful. That's a process where an independent mediator will facilitate a discussion between a couple and help them reach an agreement, but they're not able to give legal advice during the course of that process.Joanne:
I suppose, though, you know, with regard to the process of mediation, because we both know the advantages of that, that a client can go into mediation, and as you say, they're not being given legal advice by the mediator - the mediators, is there essentially acting as a mediator, a professional referee, but there's nothing preventing anybody is there from privately taking advice while they're going through the process of mediation?Anna Hunter:
No, that's absolutely right. And I think many mediators do actually encourage couples who are in mediation to take legal advice alongside the mediation process.Joanne:
But I suppose ultimately, like as Andrew said, in his particular case, that he only really got what he was seeking by putting the decision in the hands of the judge.Anna Hunter:
Yes, absolutely, and I think some cases are entrenched, and negotiations in whatever format become really too difficult and a determination by somebody completely independent is required. The judge does have a wide discretion as to the award that's made. And so, for Andrew, he had a favourable outcome, but equally, another judge on another day could have made a completely different determination which he would have perhaps not been so favourable to him.Joanne:
Sure. And that's essentially we call as lawyers the sort of judicial risk, it's the risk of litigation.Anna Hunter:
Yes, bit of a lottery.Joanne:
So what are the alternatives to court Anna?Anna Hunter:
Well, there are a number of alternatives. We've touched on mediation, increasingly couples are using a process called a "private FDR." One of the most important hearings within a financial remedy application is the FDR, which stands for Financial Dispute Resolution appointment. This is a court hearing where a judge will hear a summary of each party's case and give an early indication of the parameters of an award to the couple to help their negotiations. So increasingly, couples are choosing to hold a private FDR where they will jointly instruct a financial remedy specialists to act as a private judge.Joanne:
So who would this suit?Anna Hunter:
Well, this suits a lot of couples, it's not just what we call Big Money cases, it's increasingly an attractive option for many people. It allows for a bespoke hearing so that the parties can choose together a chosen expert in the field, who will provide a neutral evaluation. So for those people who want certainty in terms of the expert, who will be evaluating their case, it's ideal. It gives flexibility as to time, venue, it bypasses the court delays that we talked about a little earlier, and also offers privacy because some court hearings are open to journalists should they wish to attend.Joanne:
I suppose it's fair to say though, with these private FDRs, Financial Dispute Resolution hearings, there's a cost though isn't there Anna?Anna Hunter:
Well, there is a cost, but in my experience, it is a slightly greater cost than an FDR being held at court. But possibly it's a cost worth taking into account, because you're given guarantees that your hearing is going to proceed, I think I find that couples who've invested in the process jointly tend to work harder to reach a settlement in that private FDR, because they both agreed to go along to it, it's not something that's court-imposed, it's something that they've jointly chosen to do.Joanne:
And I suppose ultimately, the the guidance that's been given by the chosen expert is a specialist family lawyer anyway, it's either normally a judge or an experienced barrister. So both parties should have the comfort and the decision that's being made is probably an accurate and a fair one?Anna Hunter:
Yes, I think that's right, the expert that the couples will choose will be identified as someone who's either been practising family law for a very long time, usually will sit as a if not a part time judge or an arbitrator. So the couple will have confidence that their expertise is going to provide a fair and reasonable settlement proposals.Joanne:
So what about collaborative law? Some some of the listeners might have heard Collaborative Law. So can you just explain to us what this means?Anna Hunter:
Yes, that's a very different type of process, because one of the key principles of the collaborative process is that couples who sign up to it, commit at the outset, not to issue any court applications during the time that they're engaged in the collaborative process.Joanne:
So I suppose it's completely the opposite to litigation, then isn't it?Anna Hunter:
Yes, completely, although with the same outcome in the hope that the parties will reach a settlement, at the end of the process, each party will instruct their own solicitor. And there'll be a series of round the table meetings conducted where everyone's in attendance and open discussions about terms of settlement, what a fair settlement or agreement might look like taking into account various factors relevant to that couple, such as circumstances of the children, their ages, it allows again, for a more bespoke experience than perhaps the court process does.Joanne:
So I suppose dealing with a collaborative process where there's an agreement at the very outset of the process, you're not going to be going to court. I guess that's a very good effective process. Is it for couples who, I guess so using the phrase divorcing with dignity and want to perhaps together reach that agreed settlement between the two of them that the both on the same hymn sheet? And what about arbitration? I mean, that's something that's actually been around now in legal circles for quite some time. But, again, I think it's not something that's commonly used in relation to financial remedy proceedings or indeed, children's proceedings. So could you just explain a little bit to the listeners about arbitration and what that is?Anna Hunter:
Yes, arbitration is perhaps more similar to the private FDR that we were just talking about, in that the couple will, again, identify a suitable arbitrator that they both approve of, to head up their arbitration process. It again offers the freedom and flexibility of being able to choose the arbitrator, choose your venue, choose the time and in arbitration process, perhaps even limit the documents that you want to rely on, or the issues that you want to be determined. But at the end of that process, the arbitrator will be instructed to make an award. So a determination, which is which is binding upon both parties. Both parties agree at the outset of the arbitration process that they will be bound by whatever decision the arbitrator reaches about their case.Joanne:
Brilliant. Thanks very much indeed, Anna, for talking us through all of those different options.Anna Hunter:
Thank you for having me.Joanne:
That was Anna Hansa, a specialist awards and children's solicitor at Major Family Law. And as always, if you'd like to contact Anna or Councillor Graham Armstrong, who we heard from earlier, their details are on the SplittingUp.com website. That's all for now. I'm Joanne Major. Thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.