Q&A between a divorce lawyer and a psychologist

Published on 09.09.22
Published on 09.09.22

As any seasoned divorce lawyer will tell you, part of their role involves helping clients through the emotional turmoil of getting divorced as well as the legal aspects. Similarly, mental health practitioners with divorcing clients often find themselves fielding complex questions about the legal process. In this article, Portner Head of Family Teena Dhanota-Jones and Psychologist Dr Anne from My Freedom To Thrive discuss some of the questions clients regularly raise with them that fall outside their areas of professional expertise.

Questions from a psychologist to a matrimonial solicitor

  1. Question:

My client’s partner controls all the household finances, and he has now left the home. My client has no savings and is completely dependent on their partner for income. They are scared that they will be left without access to money if they begin divorce proceedings. What legal protections are there to ensure their basic needs are still met, and how long does this process take?

Reply:

If your client issues divorce proceedings, they can issue an application for financial remedy alongside these proceedings. The financial remedy application enables them to request that the matter is listed for an interim hearing to pursue money from their partner, which would be paid monthly. The claim would be for interim periodical payments (i.e. spousal maintenance). After the financial remedy proceedings, the maintenance may continue for an ongoing period.

The application will be issued within a few weeks of filing it with the court, and an interim hearing is likely to be listed within a month or two of that application.

  1. Question:

My client has been told that mediation is the first step to negotiating a settlement. I am concerned that their partner will attempt to bully them during this process. What protections can my client ask for to ensure their interests are better protected and they are supported during negotiations?

Reply:

Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). A suitably experienced mediator will elicit during their initial call with your client whether mediation is suitable. If your client’s partner is intimidating and controlling, mediation would not be suitable for resolving the dispute. Other options are available, such as shuttle mediation and solicitor-led negotiations, which shield vulnerable clients from a dominating partner.

  1. Question:

If mediation fails, my client is left with no option other than petitioning the court. As the financially weaker party, they are unsure how they will be able to pay their legal fees. What options do they have?

Reply:

There are options, and your client should engage a solicitor to obtain advice on the best next steps. If mediation is unsuccessful, solicitor-led negotiations would be the first option. In respect of funding, I would consider:

  • family and friends
  • bank loans
  • 0% credit cards
  • litigation loans.

If proceedings are the next best step and the above funding options are unavailable, an application can be made for legal funding upon issuing the financial remedy proceedings.

One of the governing statutes for financial remedy proceedings is the Matrimonial Causes 1973. Sections 227A and 227B enable a financially weaker party to submit an interim application to the court for a legal services order (LSO). The court can order that the payments are made monthly or by lump sum. Your client would have to prepare a statement covering several aspects.

  1. Question:

My client has decided to instruct a solicitor. What factors do they need to consider when choosing their representation?

Reply:

Appointing a matrimonial solicitor is a hugely personal choice. Most of my work comes from existing and past clients, which is a huge vote of confidence. So, I would say that one way is to ask a friend and/or a member of your family if they could recommend anyone.

Many people look online. You should be able to find out a lot about a solicitor from their LinkedIn profile and their firm’s website. A solicitor recognised in legal directories, such as The Legal 500, is a good indication of their reputation. Searching for a solicitor’s testimonials online is helpful and reinforces that they have achieved good outcomes for clients. Additionally, ascertaining the solicitor’s knowledge by reading their publications and posts and watching any videos they have posted will show their expertise in their field.

Questions from a matrimonial solicitor to a psychologist

  1. Question:

My client is a victim of a controlling and dominating partner. However, there has been no physical abuse – it seems to be emotional and financial. Can you provide guidance on how to engage the controlling person in the divorce and financial proceedings?

Reply:

Many of my clients begin with the belief that if it’s not physical, it’s not abuse. It is important that they don’t do this, as emotional and financial abuse has a serious impact on mental well-being. Psychological control will have been used constantly throughout their relationship, making it difficult for them to engage with their ex-partner. The first goal of therapy is helping clients understand that their relationship has been characterised by an extremely unhealthy power dynamic. When I have guided them through this extremely painful but necessary change in perspective, clients are much better able to negotiate and plan.

  1. Question:

What support could you provide if my client is a victim of a controlling and dominating partner?

Reply:

I offer specialist psychological services for clients who have been victimised by controlling and dominating partners. I take referrals from lawyers for clients who are trying to exit highly destructive relationships or are in extremely difficult divorces. I start by calming the client’s arousal system before moving on to an education process and ultimately helping them to begin future-oriented planning. I use a planned approach, as experience has shown me that while clients all differ in their history and personal circumstances, there is a commonality in the stages of therapy.

  1. Question:

How do you think your involvement will better assist my role as a legal advisor?

Reply:

Feedback from the lawyers I work with has been highly positive. They regularly report that their clients are much calmer and better able to engage with the legal process. Plus, they find that after their clients have begun working with me, it is much easier for them to stay within their own legal working boundaries.

Often clients are confused about the services a lawyer can provide and how the legal process works. I help manage any unrealistic expectations they may have. The real benefit comes, however, when a client is open to a collaborative sharing of relevant case information between the lawyer and me. It allows the gathering of necessary evidence, keeps the client clear about what is happening, and finally, is a learning opportunity for the lawyer on the psychology of difficult individuals.

  1. Question

Some clients regularly use the terms “narcissistic”, “gaslighting”, and “stonewalling”. Please can you provide brief definitions for each, which I hope will assist family lawyers to recognise these behaviours and enable them to advise their clients about such allegations.

Reply

If a client comes to you using these terms, firstly, you need to ask them why they think that. Their answers are often the first indication that your negotiation may not be straightforward. Narcissism is a stable characterisation of personality. The person is grandiose, self-important, highly entitled, and lacking in empathy. To get what they want, they will use tactics such as gaslighting, attempting to control the social narrative even if what they say is evidently false, and stonewalling, which is a refusal to engage. These types of relational behaviours will transfer to the legal process, creating delays, frustrations and extreme client anxiety.

If you require any further information on this article or are seeking advice on a matrimonial dispute, please contact Teena Dhanota-Jones at [email protected].

You can find out more about Dr Anne and her services here: www.myfreedomtothrive.com

Disclaimer: The above is merely general guidance and should not be relied on as formal advice. We suggest you take professional advice before taking any action in relation to the issues discussed above.