Collaborative Family Law
A fresh new approach to family law
The adversarial court system in South Africa is often not well-suited for resolving family law disputes. For this reason, I often question our ability to help clients heal and move forward with their lives in a productive and constructive manner.
In a court, legal representatives are constrained by the principles and rules of law which are often not well suited to a client’s particular situation and his/her needs. The problem is that the legal community as a whole, our laws, our courts, court rules, and legal institutions – values and rewards ‘victory’ at any cost and this makes it difficult for us to focus on the post-divorce needs of clients.
Despite any intentions to the contrary, a court-sanctioned outcome is very seldom a good fit for families. The issues at stake are way too personal and require a high level of detail that the overburdened South African court system is not able to provide.
The mere fact that the judiciary is not in a position to gain more than a superficial understanding of the dynamics of any family, divorce attorneys find it challenging to maintain a balanced professional relationship with a family law client. The client’s perception is that he/she has few options and very little control over the outcome. When the divorce attorney explains that the courts are subjective, impatient, slow and inconsistent, it undermines the client’s confidence in the legal process during one of the most stressful periods in his life. The attorney has the delicate task of managing the client’s expectations while trying to give the client some confidence that the court process will meet his needs. The result is a difficult dynamic that causes many divorce attorneys to grind their teeth whenever a client call.
Most family law attorneys interact with child experts and other mental health professionals who can assist families in using their resources to create a more stable life for themselves after a separation or divorce. However, in a divorce trial setting, divorce attorneys and advocates are often forced to blindly refute or defend these experts’ recommendations. Often, the information is not used as a guide for the clients but as a weapon against the client’s spouse.
Several years ago, Stuart Webb, a lawyer in the United States of America decided that he wanted to make a positive difference in most cases and pledged to himself and his legal community that he would find a way to practise family law in a principled manner. His commitment resulted in an international movement known as ‘collaborative law’, which is practised in many countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
Webb analysed the court-based system and concluded that, in most instances, if a client resorted to the court or even threatened to do so, it resulted in a powerful disequilibrium. For most clients, the reconstruction of the family after court intervention was at best delayed and at worst unattainable.
Webb bravely decided to make his own practice ‘court-free’ and advised his legal community that any case in which he was involved had to be settled. His idea and its implementation were tactically very astute. When the lawyers and their clients adopt the ‘no court’ rule, any opportunity to strong-arm, bully or pressure is removed because such tactics are no longer effective in the settlement environment. Absent ultimatums, both lawyers and their clients can explore settlement in an atmosphere of cooperation.
Collaborative law is a ‘one-idea’ or ‘one-rule’ process: There is a contractual requirement that the collaborative attorney and all members of his firm must withdraw if the matter goes into litigation. This requirement is set forth in the participation agreement, which is signed by both parties and both attorneys. It provides that the clients must retain new litigation counsel if they decide to terminate the process and litigate. It is substantively different to be contractually bound to non-litigious resolution than to negotiate ‘nicely’ with the threat of court still available.
The lawyers limit the scope of their representation to collaborative law negotiations. The lawyer and client enter into a separate retained agreement wherein the client acknowledges the limited scope of the lawyer’s representation (for settlement purposes only) and acceptance of the waiver of the lawyer/client privilege during settlement meetings. The agreement also contains commitments to voluntary full disclosure.
The process plays out in a series of ‘all party’ meetings with the clients and their collaborative lawyers present. Negotiations are conducted in a principled fashion, exploring interest rather than discussing positions. Negotiations are interest-based rather than positional.
The participation agreement also provides that the substance of all negotiations is confidential and thereby creates a safe environment where clients can freely explore different options to meet their goals and needs.
In the collaborative law process all participants form a team with a common goal: To concentrate all efforts towards reaching a settlement that is acceptable to both parties. As a team, they are less likely to give up. Impasse becomes a challenge rather than an opportunity to assign blame, and successful negotiations are much more likely. The team approach also provides the opportunity for the lawyers to discuss the legal context and its application to the clients and assist in brainstorming options for resolution of the issues.
Collaborative law training assists lawyers in accomplishing the shift from ‘warrior’ to ‘facilitator’. Traditionally, the client provides a set of facts and we rush to reconstruct them into a ‘triable issue’. A collaborative lawyer assists the client in formulating a forward-looking set of goals and understanding the goals of his spouse. A collaborative lawyer does not solicit a recitation of woes, but encourage the client to take a broad view. The lawyer must be vigilant not to raise expectations of a particular outcome. The choice of the collaborative law process provides a framework for the client to work towards his broad goals with the lawyer’s support and assistance.
Collaborative law has been expanded to include financial and mental health professionals as members of the professional team. Financial professionals, such as accountants, financial planners and appraisers assist with the financial details of the settlement. Mental health professionals help design a parenting plan and act as facilitators. Although this team approach may seem costly to the family, the total cost is often the same as in a lawyer-only model because the assistance provided by other professionals results in more efficient, focused negotiations. The allied professionals can help facilitate discussions and formulate options for resolution. Together, the professionals and clients leave behind the troubled history of ‘winning battles but losing wars’ that has left so many families without a road map for rebuilding their lives and those of their children after divorce.
The effect of collaborative law on family Law attorneys is overwhelmingly positive. It dramatically improves the relationship between attorneys and eliminates litigation surprises and stressful relationships with clients resulting from unrealistic expectations. The focus shifts from differences to commonalities. All possible assistance is provided to help formulate a plan for restructuring the post-separation family.
The clients cannot abdicate responsibility to their lawyers and cannot use judicial discretion as a sword or a shield. Planning for the best outcome is their responsibility and requires their full participation. They ultimately decide their own future and the future of their children with the assistance of the professionals.
Collaborative law is different from mediation. In mediation, a neutral mediator assists the parties in reaching a resolution. In collaborative law, each client’s representative is present during negotiations to provide support and legal advice and to manage the process. Legal advice is concurrent with and integrated in negotiations.
The collaborative lawyer meets with his clients between negotiation meetings to prepare for the next meeting. The lawyer also assists the client in expressing his or needs and concerns during the meetings. Many clients prefer to have a representative present during negotiations, particularly where there is a power imbalance between the parties.