Complaints about solicitors handling family law matters make up about one in every 5 referrals to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC).
If life later turns sour for the “Cheerful Couple Having Fun at Home” pictured above (a stock photo we found striking and a wee bit odd), either or both partners may find themselves needing legal advice on a whole range of family law issues.
Family law advice is most often a distress purchase, a last resort necessitated by stressful and difficult circumstances.
The SLCC has published “Family Law – a Guide for Consumers”, which aims to inform and educate.
Their hope is that the guide will be empowering for you if you find yourself in the position of having to instruct a family law solicitor. The better informed you are, the better you can understand what your solicitor is (or should be) trying to achieve for you. By knowing what to look out for and the right questions to ask, you can help keep things on track and prevent misunderstandings with your solicitor.
The guide concentrates on 10 particular areas where getting things right will increase the chances that you will end up as a satisfied family law client, whether your solicitor is in Moray or elsewhere.
10 things you should consider
1. Thinking about the outcome you want to achieve and whether any matters can be agreed
Solicitors cannot generally act for both sides in a dispute. Also, family law is not about attributing blame. There may be good reasons why there is little scope for agreeing disputed issues but the more you can do that without leaving it to your solicitor, the less your solicitor’s services are likely to cost you.
2. Preparing for the initial meeting with your solicitor
In this area of the law, it is unusual (though not impossible) that a single meeting with a solicitor will be enough to resolve the problem completely. It is important to be clear whether there will be any charge for the initial meeting.
Keep in mind that, following the meeting, either you or your solicitor may decide that you are not well suited to each other. In other words, you may legitimately decide not to continue to instruct the solicitor or the solicitor may decide that he or she does not wish to take your case on.
3. Finding out about costs
It is rare that a solicitor will charge a fixed fee for family law work; an hourly rate is much more common. This is because the amount of work required is often unpredictable and will depend on some uncontrollable factors such as the level of cooperation received from others (including your spouse or partner, for example). Charges are made for time spent with you in meetings or on the telephone but also for other work required to progress your case, which work may be “invisible” to you.
4. Getting an idea as to timescale
How long it will take to resolve matters can be unpredictable but your solicitor, from their experience, ought to be able to give you a general indication as to the length of time a matter of this nature will take. It can be a good idea to agree with your solicitor how often you will receive an update on progress (which can include a report that there has been no progress, for whatever reason) and the mode of communication (for example, letter or email)
5. Agreeing how your solicitor will keep in touch with you
Most of the complaints received by SLCC concern poor or inadequate communication. Where a sudden problem arises, it can be tempting to contact your solicitor automatically. Apart from the cost implications of this, it is worth reflecting on whether the matter is truly urgent or whether it could wait for discussion at your next planned contact with your solicitor.
Solicitors – especially family law solicitors – are very busy and it may not always be possible to get hold of your solicitor at short notice. Often, an email will be a better way of getting in touch than a telephone call. You should agree with your solicitor whom you should ask for if: a matter is urgent, the solicitor is not available, and you must speak to someone there and then.
6. Asking about anything you do not understand
You may well have considerable upheaval and uncertainty in your life, with the emotional drain that causes. It will be difficult for you to take in everything which your solicitor needs to tell you. On occasion, your solicitor may have to give you a lot of information at one time. You should not be afraid to ask questions to clarify anything you do not understand.
You can help yourself by taking notes or perhaps by having someone accompany you who can take notes. Of course, you can ask your solicitor to confirm the main points to you in writing but there will be a cost implication associated with this.
7. Being open and honest
All solicitors have a duty of confidentiality. In addition to that, your solicitor is only going to be able to do a proper job for you if you are frank and truthful about all relevant matters, some of which may be painful for you to relate. Full disclosure and trust is fundamental to the solicitor-client relationship. If you are not completely open, for example, about your finances, this can have an adverse effect on your case later. In some cases, your lack of candour may put your solicitor in a position whereby they will be unable to continue to act on your behalf.
8. Understanding what happens if your case goes to court
Family law solicitors will try to prevent your case going to court, if at all possible. There are a number of means of negotiation which they will try in order to resolve matters. If your case does have to go to court, bear in mind that it is the court which sets the timetable. There are certain hearings which you will require to attend in person and others which your solicitor will be able to deal with on your behalf.
It will not always be possible for your own solicitor to deal with your case in court; it may have to be a colleague from within the same firm. This is perfectly normal. If your case goes to court, it will probably end up costing you more than if it does not.
Finally, while your disagreement with your spouse or partner may be acrimonious, your respective solicitors will always behave in a civil and courteous manner towards each other and the court; this does not mean that they are no longer acting in your best interests.
9. Appreciating the pros and cons of legal aid
There are 2 main types of legal aid in this context:
- Legal advice and assistance covers meetings, correspondence and negotiations (it does not cover court work);
- Civil legal aid generally follows later if your case requires to go to court.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) is really a second client, in addition to you. Your solicitor can only do work under legal aid which is authorised by SLAB. For example, certain letters, such as “reminder” letters to you to get in touch, will not generally be paid for under either type of legal aid. Delays can be inevitable where your solicitor requires to ask SLAB for permission before carrying out a certain piece of work. If your solicitor considers that you are being uncooperative or obstructive, they have a duty to notify SLAB and this may affect your eligibility for legal aid.
It is easy to think of legal aid is a free service but it is more like a loan to help pay your costs. If, at the end of your case, you receive a capital sum or other financial settlement, you may be regarded as having made a “clawback” and this could result in SLAB requiring you to pay your solicitor’s fees in full (albeit at legal aid rates).
10. Exercising your right to challenge or complain
If you are unhappy in any way with the service you receive from your solicitor, it is important to make your concerns known as soon as possible. You should speak to your own solicitor in the first place, if you feel able to do so. Beyond that, there should be a Client Relations Manager you can contact.
Getting your copy of the guide
You can easily download the pdf eBook from the SLCC website. The family law guide helps Moray consumers understand the process of instructing a solicitor and highlights areas where there are most likely to be problems or misunderstandings. We would recommend everyone who engages the services of a family law solicitor to read it. The most effective time to read it would be before you have your first meeting with your solicitor.
How we can help
If you have any questions about this article or about any aspect of our family law services, please get in touch with us. You can contact one of our family law solicitors on 01343 544077 or you can send us a Free Online Enquiry. Any initial discussions are free of charge and without obligation. We will need to have an initial chat with you, for example, to make sure you have a legal issue with which we think we can help you – potentially saving time on both sides.