Complaints relating to divorce and family law are almost double that of other areas, with around 13 per cent of clients dissatisfied with the way their lawyers handled a divorce case, a report by the Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales has found.
Some 27 per cent of those complaints, made between April and December last year, were triggered by costs, with one in five people saying that they were not given an estimate of costs when first consulted.
“Where there are complex legal issues involving children, property, differential incomes and pensions, there is an increased risk of an unexpected rise in cost,” the report read. “What may have begun as a reasonably consensual process can sometimes spiral into protracted litigation and end up with the family assets being eaten up in legal expenditure.”
In one example an unemployed woman was charged £15,000 more than expected, a cost that included £4,000 in photocopying fees. Other cases saw clients billed up to £30,000 more than agreed.
Another 18 per cent of matrimonial complaints related to a failure to provide adequate legal advice, the watchdog found, with a lawyer in one case appearing not only unprepared but also seemed to have been drinking.
The report also points to the removal of legal aid in April, a move that it says will inevitably put pressure on service providers to come up with ways of bridging the affordability gap for many people seeking a divorce.
“Some new business models cut down on cost by centralising services and reducing customers’ access to face to face advice,” the report adds. “Such models can work well for many customers. However, understandably in what is often a stressful time, many people value face to face contact. Research indicates that almost half (45 per cent) of people instructing a divorce lawyer factor the convenience of where they are located into the decision.”
The watchdog advises lawyers in this area to give proper estimates and update customers regularly on costs to avoid future complaints.