WHSmith has announced plans to provide ‘in-store’ legal advice which is likely to include family law. The backdrop is the implementation of the Legal Services Act which comes into effect in October. This seeks to de-regulate the provision of legal services which will no longer be the preserve of traditional law firms and so ‘alternative business structures’ will be licensed to provide legal services. WHSmith (in common with others e.g. Tesco) plan to offer legal advice in conjunction with new businesses set up for the purpose e.g. QualitySolicitors (a franchise of small rebranded law firms).

Most sensible family lawyers would welcome any move that makes family law advice more accessible and de-mystifies the process of separation and divorce, provided the interests of a family are protected and the advice received is of a good quality. Lawyers should always encourage parties to reach agreements directly where possible. The key, however, is to cross-check those agreements to ensure that they ‘work’ and are properly recorded. Couples should remember that a divorce, whilst relatively easy to obtain, can have far-reaching consequences.

The divorce process itself, in most undefended cases where there are no issues of legal jurisdiction, can be straightforward. The difficulty comes when looking at financial agreements and arrangements for children. Even for families with modest assets proper expert advice, legal and financial, can make a difference. People need to understand how a settlement might impact on a family in the long term e.g. there could be issues surrounding mortgages, tax or a family business to consider.

For many clients it’s often a question of seeking advice for the aspects of their separation that are thorny whilst dealing with the more straightforward issues themselves. Commonly this is known as ‘unbundling’ – using your lawyer ‘sparingly’ for specific issues (or maybe to draft and finalise an agreement reached with your partner directly) with the aim of saving fees and retaining control over the process. WHSmith and others could have a useful part to play in this if the advice provided is benchmarked by quality.