“The most difficult part of this business is the lack of repeat customers. Unless you are an A-list celebrity, or Premier League footballer, you are unlikely to go through too many divorces in your life.”
Meet Ali Carter, the Managing Director of Divorce Ltd. Ali, like most of the country at the moment, is working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown. “In March we saw an 85% drop in new business. But since then we have had a big bounce, with lots of enquiries from people who are struggling with parenting arrangements during the lockdown, or who have used the time to re-assess their lives and want to separate from their partner.
We actually took on an extra member of staff after the lockdown and have managed to keep all our mediators in business during this time, so that has been the best thing for me to come out from this horrible situation.”
In China, media reports show that separations and divorce applications surged in March when the lockdown was relaxed. Similar trends are expected in the UK and other countries.
“It’s a sad fact that when a relationship is struggling, spending more time together can make matters worse. That is why we traditionally see a boost in enquiries in January, after the Christmas break and again in September, after the summer holidays. The lockdown just magnifies existing issues, whilst concerns about jobs, money and health all add to a cocktail of stresses that put even the most amicable of relationships under pressure.”
But will the forecast economic downturn affect the divorce industry? “Yes and No”, says Ali. “The housing market does have an effect on divorce, as many people generally look to sell or buy properties during a separation. And your pension values could have reduced considerably, affecting the overall agreement. But in general, people can’t perfectly time when their relationship fails – but when it does, we help them sort out their parenting arrangements and their financial agreement as fairly, amicably and cost-effectively as possible.”
It became compulsory to consider family mediation in the UK before a court application just over six years ago, but there is still a lot of confusion to the process and what it actually involves. Many people still think it is a chat to confirm the relationship is over. That would be something discussed in counselling instead. The best way to describe mediation is it replaces going to court with having an adult conversation about how to move on with your lives when separated.
Many people think they can go to a family court, get a decision based on what they feel is fair and have it made legally binding and the other party will be thrown in jail if they do not comply with the order. That is very far from the truth. A financial order takes three separate hearings to reach a final decision, will take about a year to resolve and quotes vary from £20,000 to £50,000 per person if you have a solicitor represent you. Investing a few hours of your time and a few hundred pounds at the start of the divorce process could just save you a lot of time and stress.
So why set up a family mediation and amicable divorce business? Ali was a police officer in the Metropolitan Police. He spent many years working on the Sapphire unit, helping victims of serious sexual assault. This taught him how to talk to people in distress and, more importantly, how to listen. When he had his daughter he moved to a Safer Neighbourhood Team and started getting involved in neighbour disputes. “I could see the benefit of resolving problems sensibly and by talking and working together, as opposed to just using the powers available to me under the law.
When I went through my own, difficult divorce, I thought ‘there must be a better way to sort out everything?’ I heard the Uk Government were pushing for a more amicable approach to resolving issues, so I took a qualification in mediation, retired early from the police and set up my own mediation service. My first office was a cupboard under the stairs, I bought a printer and laptop from a car boot, and for the first few months, travelled to clients’ houses as I could not afford to hire a meeting room.”
Almost 10 years later, Mediate UK, the trading name of Divorce Ltd, has fifteen branches nationally and helps clients throughout England & Wales with online mediation.
“Online mediation was something we set up in 2015 and this is how we hold all our mediation appointments at this time. It works really well and allows people to come out of the lockdown with a clear plan for their future.”
You may think it would be difficult to innovate within the divorce market, but Ali and his team have put together various new services to help people going through a divorce. “We set up fixed-fee legal packages with the mediation attached to them. This lets people budget at an expensive time, without being committed, but also means your agreement is not going to be undone by unscrupulous solicitors. We work with professionals we know and trust and who fully understand the work we put in first.
We also devised a method of mediation that we call ‘progressive mediation’. It streamlines the process, focuses on getting to agreement and is the reason we help nine out of ten clients reach agreement, when the national average is just 70%.
For the 10% who don’t reach agreement, we devised barrister reviews so you can find out what would be a likely outcome were you to go to court. Why spend in excess of £20,000 on court hearings, if an expert has already told you what is likely to happen?”
Does Ali feel bad running a business that serves people going through a divorce or separation? “I’m divorced, my parents are divorced and I have helped in over 3000 divorces. I have seen the best and worst ways to do it and I am convinced that an amicable approach, using mediation if required, is best for the couple divorcing, their children and the wider family.”
Any tips for those stuck in lockdown with a partner they don’t want to be with? Ali suggests, “Just focus on the future, put a plan in place and, where possible, work together to put it into practice. Look at where you want to be in your life in two years’ time, how you want to parent your children, what will make you happy and then just go for it. Things can and will get better. I’ve never had a client come back after a few years and say their life is worse. Done well, you can all be that much happier.”