My train-wreck divorce inspired my company 'amicable'
The inspiration to set up an online service to help couples separate amicably came from my personal experience of a bitter and costly divorce. Ten years ago, I learned the hard way that the traditional adversarial approach to divorce exacerbates matters. The emotional cost of an acrimonious divorce is incalculable. Not only does it damage the people divorcing but more importantly it impacts children and ruins the prospect of a decent co-parenting relationship. This is the killer issue. This is damage that cannot be undone. This is why, when it happened to me, I knew I had to stop it happening to others.
As the dust settled on my ruinously expensive final hearing (over £80,000 in legal fees), I started to think about what had happened and what had gone so badly wrong. I had trained in counselling psychology and so post-divorce I went to work with lawyers helping their clients navigate the emotional journey of separation. I used this experience to understand first-hand, but without the personal attachment, the impact of the legal process on separating couples working with solicitors.
I adapted an approach called ‘collaborative law’ and worked with specially trained solicitors across London to provide a ‘couples’ service’ for their clients. Collaborative law works on the principles of Game Theory where you attempt to get to win-win, rather than the traditional zero-sum adversarial approach that is baked into our legal system. The problem was lawyers behave like lawyers, reverting to ‘win at all costs’, also known as ‘working in my client’s best interest’. True collaboration proved hard for most of them and my suggestion of doing the work for a fixed fee was impossible to implement. I was left frustrated but with an unfailing belief the system was broken, and change would not come from within the legal industry.
Alternative approaches to sorting out separation such as mediation where couples choose to work with a mediator to reach an agreement have not had the positive impact expected. Take up rates have been falling and Government data shows a 61% success rate. One key reason mediation fails in almost 4 out of 10 cases is that there is a flaw built into the process. After couples reach an agreement through a mediator, they are sent away to separate lawyers to take advice on the agreement. Unfortunately, this often means that conflict is reintroduced into the process, as arguments erupt over the details, before a legally binding consent order is agreed upon.
Understanding the flaws in the traditional ways of doing things, allied with my personal experience of divorce, helped me and tech entrepreneur Pip Wilson to create the scalable model which our company amicable now implements. We have created a comprehensive joint couples’ service which operates differently. We work with couples to help them all the way through to reaching a final written agreement over their financial and family arrangements.
To achieve this, we created a specialist drafting team (lawyers, many of them parents returning to the workplace post children who don’t like the culture or long inflexible hours of big law firms), that writes up the legal paperwork for couples to finalise their agreement. This means there is no need for the couple to be separately represented. Of course, this does not stop either person seeking independent legal advice if they wish to do so. However, it does mean that a potentially adversarial and costly legal advisory and drafting process is not automatically built into the process. This approach has proved more successful than traditional mediation. Indeed, it has a 95% success rate, which is significantly better than the 61% success rate the standard mediation process achieves.
Implementing this novel approach inevitably meant disrupting the pre-existing adversarial paradigm, and the vested interests that profit from it. The divorce process in England and Wales is adversarial and so the very notion of advisors helping both people to reach agreement amicably seemed alien and threatening to most. This resulted in a legal challenge to the more successful approach which we had developed.
In 2020, the High Court ruled in our favour stating that our couples-led online divorce service did not create a conflict of interest by assisting divorcing couples. The court also held that we had not contravened the Legal Services Act, 2007 by helping divorcing couples prepare their documents without relying on separate solicitors. Along with the advent of no-fault divorce, this judgment also helps to support a wider cultural shift away from the traditional legalistic, costly and adversarial divorce process which prevailed until recently. It is now far simpler for couples to take a kinder and more collaborative path towards separation.
Richard Branson famously said that “a business is simply an idea to make people’s lives better.” For me, the negative personal experience of a divorce done the old-fashioned adversarial way inspired me to find a better way for others. There is no doubt that a cheaper, swifter and less contentious way to amicably divorce is far better for the separating couple, their children and their wider family and community. Put simply, it improves people’s lives. It is for this reason that I believe separating couples will increasingly embrace new and more amicable, collaborative and efficient ways to move on after separation.
Kate Daly is co-founder of amicable, the legal service that helps couples to end their relationships and navigate the legal and emotional journey of divorce without the need for solicitors. Kate also hosts The Divorce Podcast where she interviews a variety of guests with the aim of changing the narrative around divorce, separation and co-parenting.