The Times has reported that some of the country's biggest employers (including banks, supermarkets and big four accounting firms) are supporting a scheme whereby their HR policies are amended to include divorce and separation as a significant event in employees' lives, enabling them to access flexible working and additional periods of leave. The scheme has been supported by the president of the family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, who has expressed hope that others (such as the NHS and Civil Service) will follow suit. Such policies recognise the serious impact of divorce, leading individuals to need additional time at home to cope with the emotional aspects of this difficult time, childcare responsibilities (and additional support for children) and the very time consuming elements of being involved in proceedings (such as collating financial disclosure).
Like many other family lawyers, on qualification, I recall attending some training run by Resolution (the organisation which sets best practice, training and guidance for practitioners in this field) which explained that studies show that individuals going through a divorce experience a range of emotions akin to a bereavement. This has heavily influenced the way I have communicated with clients since and informs the underlying motivation for the support of the divorce leave scheme. Indeed, research carried out as part of the campaign revealed that 95% of those interviewed believed their mental health at work had been affected by their relationship breakdown.
The scheme demonstrates employers' increasing awareness of the importance of staff wellbeing, supporting mental (as well as physical) health issues and how important it is to acknowledge and constructively address issues individuals are compelled to deal with in their personal lives, which may impact on their performance at work. The relatively short-term reprieve offered to staff in coping with a difficult time is likely to promote long-term positive effects and the successful continuance of the relevant business or organisation.
These issues have caused me to reflect further on practical considerations for individuals going through a divorce and how best to cope with this difficult process in addition to how we, as practitioners, can draw on our experience to assist clients as best we can.
Points to consider for practitioners:
- Seek to identify as early as the initial client meeting how a client is coping with their relationship breakdown - has this come as a complete shock or as a consequence of discussions over a period of time?
- Does your client have in place the support they need from friends, family or perhaps a therapist? Family lawyers need to be compassionate and understanding but they cannot fulfil all of these roles and it is important that the client has the appropriate support systems in place to get them through what might be a lengthy process.
- Are you giving your client enough time to provide instructions and information such as financial disclosure? While you may be aware of Court deadlines, your client is going through this process for the first time and they may not be aware how long it takes to collate certain documents and information. Consider providing your own deadlines for clients so you have time to go back to them with queries ahead of Court deadlines.
- Have you explained "jargon" and technical wording in terms that are understandable to your lay client? People under extreme stress may feel under confident and unable to ask questions about things they don’t understand and it is important that they feel comfortable with the language you are using to communicate.
- What time are you sending emails to your clients? Lawyers of course have to work under pressure and are frequently compelled to work late into the evening during busy periods. However, once an email has been prepared, does it need to be sent immediately? While it is tempting to get it off your desk, consider whether it might be best for your client to receive it in the morning rather than late in the evening when it might cause anxiety and risk unsettling their sleep.
- Similarly, does your client need to receive a letter from their spouse's solicitor (which may contain something which will provoke upset) on a Friday evening when it could just as easily be sent on Monday. Obviously, some letters will require urgent attention or necessitate input over the weekend. It might be possible to agree with your client a "protocol" for letters so you know whether they are content to receive them in certain circumstances or not.
Tips for those going through a divorce:
- Consider whether you would benefit from some therapeutic support - close friends are important but there are some things you may only be able to work through with an independent professional.
- If you feel able to, speak to your employer. As demonstrated above, some employers now have a policy for supporting employees through a divorce or separation which you may be able to benefit from. You may need time to attend meetings with your solicitors, provide further support to your children or just some time to yourself to process what is happening. This all takes time and it is better to be upfront about it so you do not feel overwhelmed trying to juggle everything.
- Try to be organised. It is likely that, even if you are not going through Court proceedings, you will have to provide information about your financial circumstances as part of the divorce process. This takes time. Do you have an accountant who can help or a trusted friend or family member? Are your finances in good order? Use this as an opportunity to organise your affairs which is likely to make you feel calmer. In addition, presenting information to your lawyer in a clear manner will keep your costs down.
- Don’t be afraid to tell your solicitor when things are too much. If you need some time or cannot cope with certain things at a certain time, don't hide, speak up and communicate this so that your solicitor can help to address this and manage the expectations of your spouse's legal team.
- Recognise from the start that this is an extremely painful (yet temporary) period in your life but, although it may not seem like it at the time, things will get better.