Like many, I sat down last Tuesday evening to watch the BBC’s new drama The Split. As a family lawyer you might expect that I would avoid an hour long programme about divorce and separation after a full day in the office dealing with the same; however I was intrigued to see how my profession would be portrayed on television. As I have a number of family members who work for the NHS, the police and in schools, I have heard my fair share of criticism as to the inaccurate portrayal of the work they conduct in dramas and films. I was therefore prepared for minor errors or oversights.
What I was not prepared for however was a portrayal that undermined the work that family lawyers do and the manner in which it is done.
For those of you who have not watched the programme, it centres around Hannah Stern; a divorce lawyer who has recently left the law firm set up and managed by her mother and joined a direct competitor. The drama follows the lives of Hannah and her family both in and outside of work.
So what did I think? Taking my ‘family lawyer hat’ off for a moment, the programme was entertaining and I’m sure the following episodes will be compelling as the drama unfolds further. As a solicitor however I couldn’t help but notice the number of ethical breaches documented within the programme; including a solicitor kissing her client and a solicitor talking direct to her client’s ex-partner despite them being represented. These details I could ignore, however I couldn’t help being slightly disturbed by the bad light that other aspects of the programme shone on family lawyers and the work that we do.
In particular, in one scene Hannah was seen discussing a case with her managing partner. She was criticised for her preference to encourage settlements and that she doesn’t ‘burn up enough hours in court’. He even goes on to suggest that the divorce in this case ‘will be war’.
A separation or divorce is an extremely difficult and emotional time for the individuals involved. Whilst it may make a good drama, I do not consider that in reality this approach is the best way forward for the client. They will incur substantial legal costs and face months upon months of ongoing emotional distress as the matter proceeds through the court process. The court is currently completely overworked, and Judges often hear cases without sufficient time to read through the court file and documents. This leaves great uncertainty as to the likely outcome.
As a resolution solicitor I am keen to resolve issues as cost effectively as possible, using dispute resolution methods that seek to avoid court proceedings. It is not about causing the most disruption in order to increase your client’s cost as has been portrayed in this first episode. Hannah’s preference for settlement should be seen as positive, and is something that is at the core of the work that most family solicitors do. There are of course cases that cannot be settled and ultimately the court must decide what a fair split of the assets are – but this should not be the preference.
My concerns were further heightened by Hannah’s involvement with a client in the midst of a dispute regarding the arrangements for a child. The father in this case, Rex, was a stand-up comedian and had previously used jokes about his wife within his act. Hannah’s client, the mother, appeared to be preventing Rex from spending time with the child until he agreed to remove certain ‘gags’ about her from his show. If there is no risk to the welfare of the child when in a parent’s care they should spend a good level of time with them. A child is not a bargaining tool when discussing other issues such as the finances; or in this case the content of a comedy show.
Whilst I understand that this is a television drama with a sole purpose to entertain, I am concerned that those in the early stages of a divorce or separation will be intimated and deterred by the programmes representation of family lawyers. I can assure you that the family solicitors at Neves have no intention of creating a war out of your divorce and will discuss methods of resolving the issues as costs effectively as possible.
If you are in the process of separating from your partner and wish to take some advice as to the options available to you please do not hesitate to contact me.