So it is goodbye to the dusty old ‘Solicitors Family Law Association’ (SFLA) and hello to the trendy new ‘Resolution’. Why did the 5,000-strong lawyers’ group, founded in 1982, opt for a single-word name more befitting an eighties jazz-fusion band than one of the most influential voices in family law? Apparently, it is one thing to have the ear of Whitehall policymakers and quite another to be recognised by ordinary folk on the street. The name change is also a response to a new approach to family law that is coming at us all the way from the US.
The SFLA’s lack of market penetration in awareness terms became obvious last year when it undertook its own market research. “We realised that nobody knew who we were,” comments Kim Beatson, Resolution chair and a partner at London firm Anthony Gold Solicitors. “We then looked at our ethos and decided to work around names that would represent that.”
The lawyers considered a list of options, from the conservative (apparently just dropping the word ‘solicitors’) through to the “more extreme”. “And ‘Resolution’ was quite extreme, but it made sense because the definition was wide,” says Beatson. “On the one hand it means a decision reached by a legal body through the courts, but on the other it has this conciliatory meaning: resolving a problem or finding a solution.”
Despite the soul-searching and agonising over the new name, not everyone is convinced. “People haven’t got a clue who or what we are now,” lamented one Resolution member recently. “But then, maybe that’s a good thing – people tend to run a mile when they find out you’re a solicitor.”
The advent of Resolution also ties in neatly with the arrival of a new concept in family law – namely, collaborative law – which comes all the way from the US.
So far there are only around 100 family lawyers that have been trained in this radically new approach by Resolution. Next month Pauline Tesler, the US attorney who is one of the architects of the collaborative law concept, will fly in to the UK to train another batch of 250 lawyers. “This is a new concept within family law,” claims Roger Bamber, Resolution member and a family law specialist at Mills & Reeve. “It’s different from the conventional approach because you specifically exclude litigation and all that that implies. The courts polarise attitudes quickly and they force couples to accentuate their differences, and it’s the same for lawyers – if you’re preparing for court you have to concentrate on where the differences lie.” Resolution hopes to have 350 lawyers qualified to practise in this way by the end of the year.
Under the new model, couples and their lawyers work in round-table meetings to negotiate agreements to resolve financial and other issues without the involvement of the courts. Crucially, they agree from the outset that they will not drag each other through the courts in a participation agreement unless negotiations break down – in which case they will have to instruct new lawyers. One lawyer calls this the ‘Jesus Bolt’, referring to the piece of metal connecting helicopter rotors to the engine; if you happen to be in one when the bolt comes out, you will only have time to say “Jesus” before you plummet to certain death. The unattractive prospect of the divorce courts should prompt a similar response. Agreements are made with the full support of both sides and, as a consequence, they are far more likely to stick to them.
The Government is backing this lawyer-led movement and pushed the collaborative method in its white paper on parental separation. The Legal Services Commission (LSC) is also putting the final touches to a pilot, which is due to start in the spring, for those parties that qualify for legal aid.
Angela Lake-Carroll, director of children and family services at the LSC, is comfortable with Resolution leading the way. “Over the last several years, specialist family lawyers have been moving more and more towards a conciliatory approach, because they’re a professional group that has seen the damage caused by heavy-end litigation, adversarial proceedings and people getting into fights – and that’s particularly so of Resolution,” she says. Collaborative law has come about because lawyers were “increasingly concerned about the outcome for the clients they were working with and knews there was a different way”, she adds.
Beatson, a trained collaborative lawyer, believes the new approach will transform divorce law over the next 10 years. “Inevitably things will change because it’s such a satisfying way of practising law and it recognises that the public is much more comfortable with an environment where there’s openness and where they’re aware of what both lawyers are saying.”
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic. The counselling service Relate strikes a note of caution. “The collaborative model needs to be proven to be a safe model for us to offer it to our clients,” says Cheryl Turner, head of public policy. “We are wary of the introduction of this model without it offering trained, independent emotional support.”
If the movement is “purely lawyer-driven” then that could well be a weakness, says Peter Bell, a counsellor with the service. “My worry is whether lawyers are going to be able to professionally assess relationships for evidence of domestic abuse and child abuse,” he says. “If they don’t do that there’s a risk they will be just collaborating with an abuser by keeping good contact relations with the father and the children when the children don’t actually want that.”
Resolution’s Beatson is confident, however, that the combination of the rebrand and the focus on collaborative law will prove a winning combination. “We really want to engage with the public and for the public to select Resolution lawyers, and to think about whether lawyers have the ethos of our organisation,” she adds. “We hope there will be increased public awareness around how we approach family law.” If it works, it may be that the perception of the former SFLA as a “lawyers’ club or a trade union” will be a thing of the past.