Divorce is no place for 'nasty' lawyers
12 August 1998
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Leading playwright Terence Frisby believes that the legal profession is ill-equipped to deal with the emotive issues that surround divorce proceedings.
It was when a member of staff at the Royal Courts of Justice held a door for me, touched his cap and said, "Morning, Mr Frisby", that I realised something had gone seriously wrong in my life.
The problem was my divorce, which created litigation that went on for 15 years. For 14 years I was a litigant-in-person in my own 20th century version of Bleak House.
Soon after the door incident I found myself in the Appeal Court, having won a long hearing in the High Court. After their Lordships had found for me and exited, their ever-friendly clerk asked: "Does this mean we've seen the last of you now, Mr Frisby? Only every time your name comes up in the lists, all the judges hide in the toilet." What none of us knew at that time was that I was only into my fifth year, with 10 to go.
The 15 year-litigation sprang from Theodore Goddard, which appeared to make a monumental cock-up of my affairs. When I started my action I was worth a fortune. Eighteen months later I was bankrupt on paper (over foreign trusts and unpaid UK tax). Thus I was projected into my new career as a litigant-in-person.
I got a High Court judgment against Theodore Goddard but, without even defending the merits, the firm got me statute-barred in the Court of Appeal. The Law Society then did nothing - as usual. So now we have a nice stand-off. I cannot get damages and they cannot stop me publicly shaming them.
But it wasn't only Theodore Goddard which caused the Byzantine mess. There were other solicitors, barristers and, indeed, judges.
My experience led me to one conclusion: lawyers should be removed completely from divorce proceedings. They are expensive mercenaries, there by historical accident. Fighters are the last thing we need.
Let us pretend that we must invent a divorce system from scratch. We need three skills: reconciliation, to reconcile the couple either to each other or to their separation; accountancy, to assess and apportion the assets (if the parties cannot agree, let them present the figures to an adjudicator, trained in finances); and experts to care for the children's welfare.
Judges and lawyers have none of these skills. After a five-minute hearing in which I asked for weekly access to my son, a judge said: 'It may well be that this father is being too possessive. Once a fortnight is enough."
Continuing with my story, my divorce was a bizarre nightmare. My marriage was in crisis. Neither of us wanted a divorce, but my wife consulted a lawyer and within days he had her on a bandwagon from which she could not dismount.
The lawyer made our divorce happen. I am aware that this accusation is a cliche in legal circles, but cliches are born out of basic truths. My claim is shared by several lawyers, including one High Court judge.
At one point her lawyer, Sydney Rutter, even said to me in front of a witness: "I am going to destroy you." Rutter was "one of the nastiest pieces of work in our legal system" (another lawyer's words, not mine) and since Outrageous Fortune has been published, numerous legal practitioners have contacted me agreeing with that. Yet he flourished, unchecked in our divorce courts. The retort that Rutter could not function in this way today is nonsense. The reforms are peripheral and cosmetic.
Lawyers pocketed u390m last year from legally aided divorce - surely a fraction of what is collected from cases involving wealthy divorcees. So let us invent a system that pacifies rather than inflames. In such a system, lawyers would have no place.
Terence Frisby is a playwright. Author of There's a Girl in My Soup, he has also written a book, Outrageous Fortune, focusing on his divorce case.