From the September issue of Family Law
OnlyMums and OnlyDads Rebecca Giraud, Co-Director, OnlyMums
OnlyMums and OnlyDads is a little different from other parenting organisations working in the area of divorce and separation. Since its launch in 2007, three core principles have steered all its work., From a male perspective it was essential that the organisation would not be gender specific, would shy away from campaigning and most importantly, be there to fully support all parents – and that would have to mean parents with full-time care through to parents with little or no contact with their children. Co-Director Rebecca Giraud, is largely responsible for the ‘mums’ side of their work, and joined Director Bob Greig shortly after the launch. She describes the organisation’s aims of being the national portal for legal advice, resources and regional signposting, so that families going through separation can find relevant, accurate, and up to date professional support and direction.
The bulk of this work now centres on the Family Law Panel, (FLP) – a national network of experts dedicated to supporting families by empowering them to make the best choices in navigating the legal process. It works exclusively with Resolution members, offering parents that critical initial conversation free of charge. This gives families the ability to better understand their situation and be fully briefed on their options for moving forward. Rebecca and Bob use a simple analogy. ‘These conversations set the direction. So many parents (especially dads) can set off on the wrong foot when trying to resolve issues around break up and children. Our panel members bring clarity to their situation in the hope that they take the M5 rather than the M6.’ We are not sure family solicitors and mediators fully appreciate how useful and important these initial conversations can be. With legal aid for family law matters all but gone, people do not know where to turn. Some firms still offer free half-hours, some offer a fixed-fee for initial conversations, but many do not offer these options.
If there is one thing running OnlyMums and OnlyDads has taught us, it is that at the times of family breakdown, many parents do not have a clue what to do. They are often in emotional turmoil and most likely to be receiving conflicting and often inaccurate advice from family, friends, and the internet. This is where the FLP comes into its own. We now have the ability to say to people, ‘pick up the phone and arrange a time to talk with a local family solicitor or mediator, tell them your problem and at least hear your options for resolving and sorting out whatever it is you have to deal with’. These are the criteria we ask our professional members to sign up to. A free initial conversation or email exchange that sets out the options. Giving parents options, more than anything else, empowers people. And that is the first thing needed to get people on the right path. One Dad tweeted:
‘Thank God for websites like yours pointing us in the right direction with some much needed legal support. Thank you.’
One area in particular where the FLP comes into its own is our support for victims of domestic abuse. A letter received just this month read:
‘I am completely overwhelmed by the treatment I have had from [the FLP] and I can’t express enough gratitude to
you. . . . I found a listening ear who believed in me.’
The reduced fees scheme
2017 heralds a period of growth for OnlyMums and OnlyDads and their panel of solicitors and mediators. They have now been awarded the Government’s Help and Support for Separated Families (HSSF) mark demonstrating that their services support parents to work together to resolve disputes and help them focus on the interest of their children. They have also recently completed the year-long Cabinet Office funded SEEDBED growth programme which provided specialist business coaching on growth development. Bob says:
‘One message that came through loud and clear in every session of the programme, was the need to listen to our customers. Being able to offer that free initial conversation with a professional free of charge is a good thing, but we needed to address what happens after that. And I say that not only for the parent but for our professionals on the Panel, too.’
One response to this has been to launch the new national scheme offering a more affordable legal advice service to people who are just about managing financially – or ‘JAMS’. This has become known as the Reduced Fees Scheme. The hourly rate
under this scheme is set at around £125 per hour (plus VAT), and is available to people with income of less than £20,000 per annum and with under £20,000 of accessible savings. Income includes wages (self-employed or employed), dividends and/or interest from savings, child benefit, and any working tax credit and child tax credit. Users of the scheme are asked to submit their last three bank statements to their solicitor to evidence their monthly income and individual professional members may request additional evidence to prove eligibility to the scheme. The figure of around £125 an hour is being used as a guide and individual professionals are able to set their own rates. The scheme is limited to those individuals with less than £20,000 of available liquid savings. If a client’s savings in excess of £20,000 are used in legal costs and then reduce to below £20,000 they would then become eligible for the £125 per hour scheme.
It is one of the conditions of this scheme that if the case is such that the means of an opponent would justify making an application for a legal costs order on the basis of a full private hourly rate, because the assets or income in the control of the other party are substantial, then the scheme will be used on a specifically limited basis to deal with that application. This limitation will be set out in the client care / terms of business letter to enable the solicitor concerned arguing for a legal costs order for a full hourly rate for the remainder of the case. An essential element in the design of the Reduced Fees Scheme is the ability for solicitors to come in and out of the scheme as workload fluctuates. Put simply, in busier periods when full commercial rates are being earned, solicitors can pull from this scheme with a (literal) tick or untick of a box and then, if they so wish, come back in during quieter periods.
A social enterprise
OnlyMums and OnlyDads chose the structure of a not-for-profit Community Interest Company (CIC). As with most social enterprises, the ‘social’ element is the easy bit – giving separating parents some free support at a time when they need it most. The ‘enterprise’ bit is more challenging. For us, the answer to the income side came on the opposite side of the same coin. We know that OnlyMums and OnlyDads act as a gateway between separating parents and family law professionals. The answer was clear. Through the FLP we ask our members to provide that little bit of free information and setting out of options but charge them to do it. We invite firms of solicitors and mediators to pay an annual membership fee out of their marketing budget. It is currently £295 for a solicitor and £195 for a mediator. We do not take commission. If one or more of these free conversations turns into a paying client then we know we will get repeat business next year. And we do.
To keep things competitive we limit the number of solicitors and mediators we can have in each area. This has the effect of increasing the number of potential clients for our members but also allows us to begin building up longer term relationships with our membership. There is another important aspect to all of this. Our FLP works exclusively with Resolution. We know that its Code of Practice with its emphasis on diluting conflict whenever possible is important to our clients. Most separations and divorces have a degree of hostility between parties built in – seeking to reduce rather than heighten conflict is essential if we are to really put the interests of children first. An agreement to work exclusively with Resolution members was signed and we are sure this relationship will continue long into the future.
To increase the number of clients coming through to the OnlyMums and OnlyDads panel, relationships are being formed with other organisations. For example, FLP information is now being displayed in 60 contact centres around the UK. MP’s surgeries are another focal point for some parents who are struggling to know where to turn for advice. Many, across England and Wales now carry information on the FLP and use it to signpost their constituents to.
OnlyMums and OnlyDads’ two year expansion plan will see them extending their network of organisations that can use the FLP to refer clients too. Many organisations dealing with parents struggle when it comes to answering the more legal-type questions. Gingerbread, as an example, will now be able to use the FLP as the key signposting service for the thousands of enquiries they receive a year from separating parents. As part of the 2-year plan, new websites for OnlyMums and OnlyDads are currently being developed and will make it easier for site users to access the FLP.
Parents in difficult situations will always need to talk to professionals to navigate their way through a technical and legal process. And as for marketing for professionals – nothing quite beats coming face-to-face with a potential client. Further information on the FLP and the terms and conditions on membership can be found on www.thefamilylawpanel.org or by speaking with our Membership Director, tel: 07786 877718.