It is well known that divorce and the associated litigation is stressful. For most people, the idea of going near a Court fills them with dread. Unfortunately, if parties are unable to reach an agreement directly, through solicitor correspondence or alternative dispute resolution (such as mediation), it is likely that they will have to attend at least one hearing, usually two (possibly three or even more….). In order to minimise the emotional and financial costs of this process, it is important for all parties involved to look to reach a fair settlement as soon as possible, where the circumstances permit it.
If Court proceedings are issued, divorcing parties are required to attend what is known as a Financial Dispute Resolution hearing (FDR), which is a judge-led negotiation designed to assist the parties to reach an agreed financial settlement. Instead of attending Court, many high net worth individuals are now opting to hire a retired judge or senior expert barrister for the day, with the hearing held at a law firm or barristers' chambers. The hearing takes place exactly as it would in the Court, with some key differences, which provide the parties with significant benefits:
- Reduction in wasted legal costs due to delays: Due to limited resources in the family Courts, it is now common for hearings to be delayed for several hours, resulting in parties effectively paying their lawyers to sit and wait in the busy waiting room while other cases are dealt with by an overworked member of the judiciary. In a private divorce hearing, the judge is available to parties all day, making it much more likely that issues can be dealt with quickly so the parties can focus on trying to reach an agreement. Even though there is an additional cost of hiring a judge (typically ranging from around £4,000 and £10,000 per day depending on their level of experience, usually shared equally between the parties), the fact that the parties have invested in the process often focuses minds on working towards an agreement. The additional costs of hiring the judge far outweigh the costs that will be expended on both sides if the case progresses to a final hearing (typically practitioners and judges suggest that legal fees will double between an FDR and a final hearing).
- More time and attention from the judge: Judges in private divorce hearings have much more time to read all the papers before the hearing and, as they only have a single case to deal with, can spend the day considering the detail of the case and formulating their views on it. Therefore, if the negotiations are progressing well but the parties are stuck on a single outstanding point, the judge can assist them by providing his or her view about how this might be dealt with at a final hearing or suggest a creative way of overcoming the issue.
- Rooms and facilities for parties to use: More often than not, due to the vast number of Court users, there are no private meeting rooms available in the family Courts. Divorce lawyers report having to discuss deeply sensitive and private matters in crowded public waiting rooms while loud tannoys announce other cases. In a private divorce hearing, law firms and barristers’ chambers set up separate rooms for each party and their advisers so they feel able to discuss their case privately and without time pressure. This means the parties feel much more comfortable and as relaxed as they can be in circumstances that many are likely to find challenging to deal with.