As a qualified solicitor, I am acutely aware of the fact that high conflict disputes about finances and/or children’s arrangements as part of a divorce or separation can be incredibly expensive. I sometimes feel that asking “How much does a divorce cost?” is essentially the same as asking “How long is a piece of string?”
Whilst the “eye-watering” nature of the £6.4million that Michelle Young paid in legal costs and associated costs in her case against Scot Young can hardly be disputed (see http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/judges-fury-at-eye-watering-young-divorce-case-costs/5038911.article), it is not unusual for each party to pay thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds on their divorces.
In contrast, it is possible to simply pay the court fees of £410 and spend no money on properly resolving the finances or any other important issues that might benefit from proper exploration and, crucially, some form of legally binding agreement and it is often not until many months or years later that the actual costs of failing to untangle finances and/or reach agreements about children’s arrangements become apparent.
As a mediator, I am also acutely aware that some people are motivated to consider mediation in the hope that this will be a very cheap and easy process. For some, there may be no costs whatsoever if they are eligible for legal aid (see https://www.gov.uk/check-legal-aid) but most people will be required to pay for the mediation process and this is where the costs issue starts to become interesting.
At one end of the spectrum, there are some mediation providers that have cost structures that appear to be similar to those in the legal profession itself. This may be because of the experience or expertise of the mediator, who may well be a leading barrister or QC. Equally, this may be because of the reputation of the mediation firm itself. There may also be an element relating to the quality of the office or its location that enters the equation. Whatever the case, it is important not to confuse the issue of cost with the issue of quality. Just because a mediator charges very high rates, with their time apparently being so valuable that they will charge a lot of money for every letter and phone call made as well as for the main parts of the mediation process, this does not necessarily mean that the mediator is highly competent or experienced. I recently came across a case where each party had spent well in excess of £10,000 during an unsuccessful mediation process that had yet to even reach the stage of collecting together any financial documentation let alone lead to any positive outcomes and I struggled to see how this could possibly to anyone but the mediator’s benefit.
At the other end of the spectrum, it may be possible to find a “bargain”. There may be a mediator who is offering half-price mediation or promises of low-priced document drafting, perhaps even including the preparation of legal agreements at the end of the process. Putting aside the ethics of some of these approaches, it is really important to question whether a properly qualified and experienced mediator would be prepared to offer these rates and still be both able to and committed to providing a high quality service. These considerations become even more important when there are potentially complex issues to discuss or when there is high conflict in the case as these cases are likely to require a highly skilled and motivated mediator.
Far too often, I hear of cases where a mediation has broken down due to the apparent lack of knowledge or inappropriate handling of the mediation process and also of cases that have supposedly resulted in “agreements” that are later rejected by the parties’ own solicitors or, in certain cases, by judges when an attempt is made to seek a legally binding court order based upon the mediation “agreement”.
Ultimately, it is, as with the selection of all professionals, very important to choose the mediator on the basis of their experience, ability, qualifications and approach as well as for their cost. You may well be lucky enough to find an excellent mediator who is trying to build up a new practice with a special offer or who is prepared to lower their fees to assist one or both parties who would benefit from mediation but who simply cannot afford the standard mediation fees charged. However, if it looks too good to be true then I would be just as sceptical as I would be about any service that appeared to be marketed on the basis of being “reassuringly expensive” and in either situation I would suggest that you ensure that you are not simply led by the costs involved.
Whilst it is not possible to put a precise figure on how expensive that the mediation process should be, as there are so many different variables ranging from the experience and location of the mediator to the nature of the issues being discussed and the number of mediation sessions required, I would suggest that the process required to work through an all issues case (i.e. where the issues include the future of the marriage, reaching a financial settlement and discussing the living arrangements for the children) is very unlikely to cost much less than £500 + VAT per person or much more than about £1,500 + VAT per person and I would expect the mediator to be charging somewhere between £80 to £160 + VAT per person with there needing to be a very good reason to justify why the fees are outside of this range.
Most importantly of all, when deciding which mediator to use, you should not feel that you are being given the answer “How long is a piece string?” Indeed, one of the many advantages of the mediation process is that it should either lead to a successful resolution or have proved ineffective (which is comparatively rare from my experience) within a limited number of mediation sessions so the potential limit to the expense involved should be clear to everyone involved from the outset.
Euan Davidson (a member of the Family Mediators Association)
Godalming Family Mediation
DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances. This article is merely a general comment on the relevant topic.