The internet has enabled people to conduct their own pre-divorce research, but lawyers warn that with great power comes great responsibility for amateur sleuths, Matthew Hardeman reports
Whether they’ve been burnt by legal fees (all those thirty-second phone calls charged in five-minute increments) or have been watching too many episodes of The Good Wife, divorcing spouses are turning detective. ‘Clients [are] sending through judgments they’ve printed off the internet which they think relate to their case,’ says family lawyer Richard Collins of Charles Russell Speechlys. ‘Before, a case would be handed over to a lawyer and you would run it.’ But the apparent democracy of information the internet affords looks like it might be challenging the primacy of our learned friends.
Catherine Bedford, Lee & Thompson’s head of family, agrees with Collins: ‘I find clients are becoming savvier – they are certainly using the internet more, they’re doing more research. Some clients will even know a little bit of the law.’ And both lawyers cite the importance of money: when fees can easily be over £700 an hour, even HNWs might want to trim the budget.
Collins sees the empowerment growing: ‘I’ve seen examples of clients handing you a first draft of their statement or preparing more of their Form E [the form declaring assets]. Ten or fifteen years ago, people didn’t think they could ring up their lawyers and suggest a direction of their case in a helpful way. But now there’s all this information that enables them to do it.’
It is not just the case which is investigated, but the lawyers themselves, with ‘a lot more beauty parades’, says Bedford.
More power to the purse-holder, then. But lawyers, unsurprisingly, are wary. Bedford’s immediate instinct is to question whether ‘doing your own research’ implies something more sinister – and possibly illegal, like ‘hacking emails, hacking computers, opening post, reading financial documents’. Clients might not know where their behaviour strays beyond the legal: ‘They might be misinformed – previously, before the law changed, you could arrive at your lawyer’s door with a box of papers and quickly copy them and put them back… We see that a lot as well. And they may not even know it’s illegal.’
Imerman vs Tchenguiz is the case in point. Imerman – ‘the man from Del Monte’, as he was known in the press due to his fruitful shareholding – faced off against his wife, Lisa Tchenguiz, who did her own research by presenting up to 1.5 million pages of documents downloaded from his office computer by her brothers (they shared a space). The act, intended to prove that Imerman had lied about his assets, backfired, establishing legal precedent: spouses could no longer help themselves to private documents to help their case. (Lawyers previously encouraged divorcing couples to intercept such information under the ‘Hildebrand rules’.)
HNW spouses – traditionally husbands – now enjoy greater protection from this ruling. But it seems that for every advantage won, a snare appears – like Instagram or Facebook. Online, privacy and protection against such research can be more ambiguous.
‘Some people do make terrible errors of judgment,’ says Collins. ‘My advice is don’t post anything online… All you have to do is get a friend to look on their Facebook page and you see they’ve taken this massively extravagant expensive holiday with these people you don’t know, and all this information is set out on the internet.’ (Such a holiday – or evidence of any other lavish indulgence – might belie your Form E, or at the very least, call your case into question.)
Richard Parry, senior partner at Farrer, says the key lesson (happily) is to leave it to the lawyer: ‘I think it’s inevitable. A lot of people who come across lawyers very infrequently don’t understand so easily what a lawyer does, or what he can or can’t do.’
When the stakes are this high, perhaps the gentleman (or lady) amateur should know their place. Parry reaches into his Gladstone bag for a medical analogy: ‘It’s a bit like coming to a doctor, because you need a difficult issue dealt with. It’s fine to look things up on the internet when you think you have got something wrong with you – it only take you five minutes. But it’s no substitute for going to the doctor because of what you don’t know. You don’t have the judgment to work out if you have a serious issue – do the symptoms really add up to something?’
Our prescription: conducting your own research may sugar the pill, but don’t let it turn into the sort of headache only a £700-an-hour lawyer can cure.