Last week, Resolution ran a national awareness raising campaign, Family Dispute Resolution Week to inform the public about the non-court based options for divorce and separation.  Based on official published figures on media circulation and readership it is estimated that the message reached over 8 million people, the Resolution website saw a surge of over 3000 new visitors to the public pages and #ResFamilyLaw gained over 500 new Twitter followers. I approve.

The week culminated in the Dispute Resolution Conference 2012 , “Team DR – Going For Gold” which was attended by three of the solicitors from Major Family Law; myself, Anna Hunter and Jo Hall.  As I have written many times of late, times are changing in Family Law and there are now alternatives to the traditional approach. Education about these options- collaboration, mediation and arbitration – is vital and as Family Lawyers we need to embrace these changes, not fear them.

The conference at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford was chaired by the well regarded Miss Jo Edwards, Partner, Collaborative Lawyer and Mediator at Manches LLP. The keynote speech, given by District Judge Nicholas Crichton CBE, addressed the devastating impact of drug and alcohol abuse on families and his pioneering work with FDAC, the Family Drug and Alcohol Unit. It was informative, moving and extremely thought-provoking. His conclusion? That “a multi-diciplinary team working within the family court is the future”.

A plenary session on “Effective Teams” was given by the charismatic Neil Denny, collaborative lawyer, trainer and international motivational speaker. Claiming to be “anxious about presenting to such an esteemed audience” he congratulated Resolution for the enormous success of Family Dispute Resolution Week. He said  “It’s important not to deny conflict in the process of DR but to try and manage it away”  “multi disciplinary engagement is essential.”

The annual Henry Brown Lecture was this year delivered by Lisa Parkinson a family mediator, trainer, author and speaker. She pointed out that “it is a time of Major Change….increasingly family lawyers see DR as an opportunity not a threat” but there is still widespread ignorance about the alternatives to traditional family law practices.

James Pirrie of Family Law in Partnership (FLIP) and former High Court Judge Sir Peter Singer did a joint presentation on the benefits of arbitration, which is in the early stages of adoption by the family law profession and may well prove popular going forward.

Finally, Leezah Hertzmann and Krisztina Glausius spoke of their innovative work at the Tavistock Clinic with high conflict parents.  They have developed a model based on a therapeutic approach to help improve the “parental alliance” in families who become caught up in child related conflict.  Eligible parents are offered between six to twelve sessions to help them “regulate their feelings towards each other ….enabling them to step into their children’s shoes more easily”.

The choice of workshops was impressive and it was difficult to decide which to attend but I was pleased that I chose “The New Landscape” with Roger Bamber, Tom Farrell and Jo O’Sullivan. This was “an exploration of the challenges that we all face in this brave new world and the ways that a DR focus might help your practice”. As founder and Principal of a boutique and full service specialist Family Law practice offering a solution based approach to family law, this was ideal for me and immensely informative. Roger gave an overview, Tom talked about interdisciplinary working and fixed fee practice groups and Jo shared some of her knowledge and experience in setting up a specialist DR practice.

Roger Bamber said:
“ We need to think about what we are selling, which is face to face family advice…looking after people is what matters and that is what we do”

Yes, times are changing. As public funding will no longer be available for the majority of private family cases after April 2013, all Family Law firms will be competing for the same private client work. There is concern that there will be a huge rise in the number of self-represented parties in court leading to further delays in private cases and a new family court is to be set up to replace the current three-tiered model

Following on from Mr. Justice Ryder’s report –‘Judicial proposals for the modernisation of family justice’, all public law cases will soon have to adhere to a strict timetable. Conflict within children’s cases will increasingly be referred to family therapists, counsellors, trained Mediators and Collaborative Lawyers, favouring working together to minimise conflict and in preference to court.

Unlike when I first entered the Legal Profession the field of Family Law is now hugely competitive, with the emergence of alternative business structures such as the Cooperative and the merger between Quality Solicitors and American giant, Legal Zoom. Tesco Law is here and the battle for the consumer legal market is well and truly on.

The “Dispute Resolution Conference – DR Going for Gold” was an excellent opportunity to glean how all these changes will affect us and how we can best embrace the changes. Here at Major Family Law we are poised and ready for the starting pistol.

Joanne Major is owner of Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists.
Tel: 01661 824582
Twitter: @majorfamilylaw