A legal tech offering set up to help couples divorce without lawyers does not violate the Legal Services Act, a judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Mostyn, in JK and MK and E-Negotiation Ltd (trading as “amicable”), said amicable, founded in 2015 and which he noted is always written in lower case, has ‘greatly improved access to justice for many people effectively disenfranchised from the legal process by the near total withdrawal of legal aid from private family law proceedings on 1 April 2013’.
The company's website states that amicable is typically more than 10 times cheaper than going to court, a third of the cost of using a lawyer and half the cost of mediation.
The case arose from a court’s conflict of interest concerns about amicable’s role in helping a couple who wished to divorce uncontentiously. The company helped the couple with procedural requirements. They were charged £300 for the divorce and £300 for the financial consent order.
In her witness statement, amicable co-founder Kate Daly said the company was 'very anxious to ensure that we do not at any stage trespass into the reserved legal acitivites contained in the Legal Services Act 2007. Specifically, we have taken care to ensure we are not engaged in the conduct of litigation'.
Mostyn J said the company had a system of ‘red flags’ which ‘entirely neutralises’ conflict of interest risks, and it did not transgress the 2007 act. ‘Imagine if you were getting divorced and you have to fill in form E. Imagine that your brother was divorced two years earlier. Plainly your brother is not committing an offence if he gives you the benefit of the view of the law,' he said. However, the covering letter sending documents to the court should not be on amicable’s notepaper.
The judge stressed that his declarations relate to amicable: ‘Other online divorce facilitators (and there are many) can only rely on them if their business models are virtually indistinguishable from amicable’s.’
Mostyn J said the kind of service provided by amicable is not regulated by statute or voluntarily. However, 'this gives rise to policy questions which are outside the remit of this judgment and on which I express no opinion'.
A delighted Daly said: ‘[The] judgment highlights that amicable provides a much-needed credible alternative to traditional adversarial services, and that couples can work together, with us, to sort things out amicably rather than fighting through lawyers where they are not needed.’
Joanne Edwards, head of family at London firm Forsters, told the Gazette that legal aid cuts have resulted in more innovative family law practice. However, she said: ‘Whilst there are many divorce services run by those from a non-legal background, it is always prudent for people to take specialist independent legal advice before they sign off on their financial agreement. This is their one bite of the cherry and the value that lawyers add is to know the range of outcomes that a court would impose, to identify detail a couple/non-lawyer may not have thought of when reaching their agreement and to know the pitfalls in drafting to look out for.’