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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

A kinder divorce

A kinder divorce


Cost, acrimony and time are the enemies of a 'good' divorce, so Kate Daly and Pip Wilson have sought to rid the process of all three

Lawyers may shudder at the thought of divorces being dished out over an internet connection and choose to ignore an emerging tranche of entrepreneurs making everyday legal processes cheaper, simpler, and thus more accessible. But to look away would be a mistake.

When law was liberalised almost a decade ago, there were a few dodgy startups that made nothing of the impact they promised to at the time, but the sector has evolved since then. Now we’re seeing non-lawyer newcomers with a real opportunity to take market share in areas of law that have, for years, been the unchallenged domain of qualified lawyers.

Divorce, along with wills and probate, is ripe for innovation and entrepreneurs Kate Daly and Pip Wilson seem to have discovered not just the technological solution to delivering a ‘better’ divorce but also the human solution.

“Most people’s issues are complicated by emotion, not by legal complexity”, explains Daly, who came up with the concept for Amicable in 2015, before bringing Wilson’s complementary tech and business savvy onboard.

“What people think is not straightforward isn’t because it’s legally complicated. The law is quite straightforward on most points. People’s emotional take on things is what complicates it. So, if you attend to the emotion, you will get a much easier case. And if you ignore the emotion, then yeah, everything seems complicated. “

As the name suggests, Amicable aims to help people “untie the knot, amicably” by using an online platform, behind which sit numerous trained professionals. Amicable claims to be faster and fairer than the traditional legal route, and offers its service at a fixed cost – claims, let’s be honest, that most traditional law firms would still struggle to live by.

Neither Daly nor Wilson is a lawyer. Both women were looking from the outside in when trying to solve the problem of protracted and painful divorce processes; it’s arguably that which gave them the edge.

Daly had been through a divorce of her own and knew only too well how acrimonious and expensive it could be but, ultimately, it was her psychotherapeutic background that led her to create Amicable.

Costly collaboration

As a Resolution-trained family consultant Daly had been working with a pod of lawyers in a collaborative law setting just after her own divorce. “It was there that I realised a lot of what was being done was through facilitation”, she recalls.

Collaborative law was a relatively new concept and seemed to offer many benefits; getting each partner’s lawyers, a mediator such as Daly, and a financial advisor round the table to find an amicable route to dissolving a marriage.  

In collaboration with her colleagues, Daly had carved out a role that extended beyond the traditional counsellor or consultant. She was responsible for getting the couple together to discuss their goals at the start of the process and then facilitating roundtable meetings to resolve issues such as parenting arrangements.

“There wasn’t an awful lot of legal advice required in most divorces. If you’ve got a high-net-worth case, with lots of complicated trusts or jurisdictional issues, or anything like that, then absolutely a lawyer earns their money”, she says, “but in most cases it’s straightforward”.

That said, there was a downside to collaborative law, and that was the price. Having two lawyers sit round a table while a couple untangles their lives is prohibitively expensive for most normal couples, on normal incomes.

“I loved the collaborative principles. I think they’re amazing. If you can afford to do that, it’s fantastic”, says Daly. “But most people can’t afford to have two lawyers sitting around a table. It’s one pot of money being drained by two lawyers, so even if they’re on their loveliest behaviour, being as nice minded as possible, it’s still cost prohibitive for the majority of people.”

With that in mind, Daly set out to do something “that had the spirit of collaborative law but wouldn’t cost the earth”. She started by trying to convince the lawyers she was working with at the time to adopt a fixed fees approach. Unsurprisingly, that failed.

Another way

Undeterred, Daly took her idea to Wilson who was juggling a newborn and negotiating an exit from her first tech venture. Seeing the potential, it was Wilson who suggested they use technology to keep costs down and scale the business.

Amicable has boiled getting a divorce down to a process, which can be completed online with or without the help of a coach to work through the agreement. Once an agreement has been reached, Amicable completes the paperwork and – in theory – the divorce
will be granted.

Throughout the service the system is designed to raise red flags where there are issues that may make the divorce unsuitable for Amicable to handle, complicated assets, international elements or non-molestation orders for example. When a case is red flagged, it is passed to an appropriate lawyer to handle instead.

Daly says the process itself is an easy sell. “Our conversion rates are incredible but what’s trickier for us is if you go onto the government website now, it will state that in order to have a consent order, you must visit a lawyer. That is not true.”

In January 2020 Amicable went to the High Court to clarify precisely this point after two family court judges complained to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that acting for both parties, as Amicable does, presented a conflict of interests.

Having worked closely with then SRA chief executive Crispin Passmore while setting up the business, Daly was confident that Amicable was on a solid regulatory footing but when the SRA rejected the complaint, it found its way to family division liaison judge for the South-Eastern Circuit Mr Justice Moor.

When the issue was finally brought to court, senior high court judge Mr Justice Mostyn couldn’t have been clearer on his support for Amicable’s approach.

“There can be no doubt that the initiative of Amicable has greatly improved access to justice for many people effectively disenfranchised from the legal process by the near total withdrawal of legal aid from private family law proceedings on 1 April 2013”, he said.

Praising the system of red flags, Mostyn J explained: “On such a flag being waved, Amicable will decline to accept the case and send the parties to solicitors. In my judgement the existence of these red flags entirely neutralises the risk of any conflict of interest arising.”

Daly argues that the common misconception that lawyers are central to obtaining a divorce settlement needs to be addressed more widely. “Don’t go to a lawyer first. They should be the last people you engage in this kind of process”, she says.

Ideally, Daly would like to see the establishment of a neutral body that was available to explain to divorcing couples what their options are. “Without a neutral body to be able to signpost to the different options, it’s really difficult at the moment. Lawyers are the gatekeepers of that and that leads to certain outcomes”, she says.

No-fault era

Despite having to fight their corner in court earlier this year, Daly’s and Wilson’s business seems to have arrived at culturally just the right moment. 

From next autumn no-fault divorce will be introduced in the UK, bringing the law into line with Amicable’s long-held values. “The fact that the law changes to allow people to, for the first time, divorce together and give a joint notification is very nice in terms of being able to set it off on the right foot”, Daly says.

“There’s a big opportunity for us as a society, for our judiciary, for everybody then to say, ‘we need to invest more time and energy in showing people how they can continue that joint journey rather than going into the adversarial system’”, she adds. 

In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic Daly predicts a rise in the number of divorces, and Amicable is staffing up. There are currently around 20 staff, capable of handling hundreds of cases but rapidly reaching capacity, according to Daly. However, with a new tranche of funding secured recently she expects the business to treble in size by the end of the year.

Much of that recruitment will come from the legal sector, with the usual contrasts to law firm life on offer. Staff are able to work remotely, there is no hierarchy, no billable hours and the overall ethos is of helping people. Daly wants what she terms “experienced divorce coaches”, so lawyers who aren’t worried about keeping up their practising certificate and want to “help couples, rather than individuals”.

Amicable’s approach to legal process did not have to be cultivated outside of the industry. It could have come from within, if only those on the inside were willing to take a more critical look at how things are done now, and have been for far too many years. 

Hannah Gannagé-Stewart is managing editor at Solicitors Journal