This is a guest post by Jo Edwards, who tweets as @MissJoEdwards.
Like other fixtures in our diaries at this time of year – Boxing Day sales, gym and diet adverts starting just after Christmas, travel companies enticing us in the depths of winter with promises of sandy beaches and endless sunshine – so-called “Divorce Day” is something which is trotted out in the media on a now annual basis.
This year, it seemed to start even earlier than usual. A headline in the Daily Mirror on 28 December screamed, “As ‘Divorce Day’ approaches, why do so many couples split after Christmas? A lawyer has the answers”. In response I tweeted, “Oh no, it’s started already #divorceday #notnews”. That seemed to attract murmurs of agreement.
To be fair, the article in question was probably one of the more measured I have seen on the subject. Under the premise that solicitors are expecting “a rise in calls…on the first working day in January” (2 January? Really? Heads still sore from New Year’s Eve, kids still off school – I think not), the article explored why it may be that people file for divorce so soon after Christmas (if indeed that is correct; more below). The lawyer quoted explained that the decision to divorce is a complex one but said that her experience was that there is an increase in couples seeking divorces in January and sought to explain why that may be. The article went on to set out facts about how one obtains a divorce and (predictably but fairly) extolled the benefits of having a solicitor.
By the early New Year, things had reached fever pitch with a slew of articles about “Divorce Day” –
“Divorce Day is coming – how to break up and make sure you don’t end up broke” – Daily Mirror [Note that, in fairness, this article did not feature any quotes from a family lawyer giddily anticipating a bumper month ahead, but rather comprised a thinly veiled advertorial for a major building society with some tips about managing the financial ramifications of divorce].
Peppered with the usual stock library photos of couples with their backs to each other, a wedding cake disintegrated on the floor, a broken heart or a torn wedding photo, the articles merrily recounted tales of festive woe and anticipated 8 January as “the day lawyers get a nice boost to their business as they see a surge in separation enquiries after the pressures of the festive break“.
Aside from the complete tastelessness of that statement, I found myself wondering – why do I get so irritated every year when this story appears? And why did my irritation deepen as I saw some lawyers on Twitter almost gleefully recounting how they were getting ready for loads of calls in early January after people had had miserable Christmases en famille?
With some trepidation, I took to Twitter again, fully expecting to be shouted down by my contemporaries as I tweeted – ‘As family lawyers, I’d like us to have a pact not to engage in/encourage the “divorce day” circus next year as I don’t think it reflects well on our profession. Just my view”. The flood of supportive comments in response helped crystallise my views as to why “Divorce Day” should be banished to the annals of journalistic history and why we should call out any family lawyer who seeks to use it as a marketing tool come next January.
So why is so-called “Divorce Day” utter baloney?
1. It is not factually correct to say that the most popular day to start divorce proceedings is the first working Monday in January
The whole premise of the Divorce Day story seems to be that, sitting around the Christmas lunch table, a spouse suddenly decides that they are unhappy with their lot; come 31 December, they make a New Year’s Resolution that they will divorce in the year ahead; then on the first working Monday of January, they go and see a divorce lawyer, give them immediate instructions to issue a divorce petition and resolve to crack on with things. But that just isn’t borne out in reality.
Let’s examine the stats first of all (sorry, people). The Ministry of Justice publishes family court quarterly statistics, the most recently available being for Q3 of 2017 – Among other things, the statistics show the number of petitions issued each quarter (though not, of course, on any given day). Set out below is an analysis of the number of petitions issued in recent quarters –
2017 – Q3 – 27,898
2017 – Q2 – 27,291
2017 – Q1 – 28,523
2016 – Q4 – 26,737
2016 – Q3 – 27,707
2016 – Q2 – 30,482
2016 – Q1 – 29,195
In 2016, the last full year in respect of which we have figures, 25.6% of all divorce petitions were issued between January and March (and in fact a greater proportion, 26.7%, were issued between April and June). Although the Q4 figures for 2017 will not be available until March, of the first three quarters of the year, 34.1% of petitions were issued between January and March, 32.6% between April and June and 33.3% between July and September. Hardly supportive of the suggestion of a huge January spike.
And what of the practicalities? Those of us who are members of Resolution are bound by a Code of Practice which requires those acting for the petitioner to notify those acting for a respondent of an intention to issue and to try to agree the particulars in advance. Quite apart from being in breach of the Code if rushing to issue on “Divorce Day” having seen a client for the first time that day, it would likely lead to a flood of defended divorce proceedings if this were what was happening. In reality, it remains the case that only around 1% of divorce petitions are defended.
What is undoubtedly true, and apparently statistically proven, is that online divorce searches surge in January; and no doubt this leads to increased enquiries to law firms. Data provided by Google trends apparently shows that January 2012 and January 2016 were the two most popular months for divorce searches in the last decade. However, there are said to be similar peaks each year in May and August, which is borne out from my own experience of May and September (after the school summer holidays) being busy months for new enquiries. Searches and enquiries are not, of course, the same thing as issuing a divorce petition at the earliest opportunity in the New Year.
2. It is irresponsible for family lawyers to perpetuate this myth
Why do I say “irresponsible”?
Clients look to us for “norms”. For most, it is the first (and hopefully only) time they will divorce. For most, it is a time of huge emotion. They need to be able to make informed decisions, with our guidance.
A new client came to see me a few weeks ago, in a state of some distress as his wife had announced out of the blue that she wanted a divorce. We had a long meeting and part way through he asked me, how quickly does one party typically issue a divorce petition after first seeing a solicitor? I said that every case is different – some clients see a solicitor after lots of couples counselling and reflection, by the time they see a solicitor sure of their decision (mutual) to divorce; others come and take some very preliminary advice if there are some cracks in the marriage, so that they know what the divorce landscape would look like, and will then disappear, either never to be seen again (hopefully having salvaged their marriage) or only seen after months or even years of counselling and thought. I explained that, for those in the latter camp, a family lawyer will always look to signpost to good therapeutic services and hope not to be issuing a divorce petition. Many, of course, fall somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum and we will try to signpost them to the right support as best we can, unless of course there are domestic abuse issues and/or welfare concerns about children, in which case more urgent steps may be required.
So what signal does it give to clients to be peddling in the media the myth that people are flocking to rush to pull the trigger on their marriages on a particular day in January? Doesn’t this encourage a Next Boxing Day sale-type mentality – “everyone else is getting up at 5am as the doors open so clearly I should be doing the same”? Wouldn’t it reflect better on our profession to be saying, yes, Christmas can be a tough time for families in crisis and New Year signals new beginnings for many; but every marriage goes through a rocky patch and you should be thinking about counselling before making any big decisions? It is only those who have already had that counselling, and have made their decision against that backdrop, that we should be encouraging to take any steps to start a legal process in January.
3. People are more likely to have a “good divorce” if they have taken time to try to work things through
When clients ask what are my tips for a “good divorce”, my starting point is always that they should be sure that divorce is what they really want. Generally, our experience as practitioners is that if a couple agree that the marriage is over and feel that they have tried their best to save it, they are more likely to have an amicable separation.
Sometimes, of course, divorce isn’t a mutual decision. I advise that if that is the case and they are the one driving a divorce, they should be patient with their husband or wife and not rush the process; and if they are on the receiving end of a request for a divorce, they should not be afraid to ask for time to come to terms with it. Isn’t our experience that the most acrimonious divorces tend to be those where one or both spouses isn’t emotionally ready? Therapy can be a useful way to discuss and understand why the relationship ended, which tends to make the legal process smoother. That time can also enable them to think about how to prioritise the needs and feelings of any children, and work with a family consultant or mediator on how they will work as co-parents after any divorce.
Again, suggesting that it is completely normal to rush ahead to issue a petition puts all of this in jeopardy. This is a time for sensitivity.
4. It is just plain distasteful…
Let me draw an analogy. It is apparently statistically correct that most British deaths happen in the first full week of January. Let’s just imagine – what if undertakers had a big PR push every December, almost giddily saying, “we know that we are going to have more enquiries that week than any other and be rushed off our feet; we are ready for the flood of calls from distraught bereaved relatives and hey, we have a special offer on in January, cut price funerals”. Wouldn’t we find that completely distasteful?
But what is so different between that and family lawyers peddling “Divorce Day”? Aren’t we preying on human misery by perpetuating and contributing to the “D Day” story?
The comments on Twitter around this topic show that others share this view –
– from @pisolicitor – “Entirely agree. Family lawyers could end up being labelled ‘ambulance chasers‘”.
– from @aawguide – “I agree entirely too. I recently double checked a few family lawyer recommendations I was passing on & was surprised by tone of some firm pages & lawyer bios. If the same was said by PI lawyers, we’d be absolutely slated (rightly so). Both areas call for sensitivity and restraint“.
– from @marycshaw – “Hear hear. Rather than a January Sales Divorce Day approach there needs to be greater awareness of relationship support as a first step“.
– from @WhiteZoey – “Horrid concept and I agree wholeheartedly”
John Hyde (@JohnHyde1982) of the Law Society Gazette had the forethought to tweet on 19 December, “Yet to receive a single law firm press release about divorces increasing over Christmas. This is excellent progress…”. Sadly this fell on deaf ears and by 4 January he was forced to tweet, “Law firms : Please don’t be tempted to add to this ‘Divorce Day’ nonsense on Twitter. Using human misery as a marketing tool is not a good look“.
Quite right. So family lawyers – let’s make a pact not to put out any press releases about “Divorce Day” next year; and if you are contacted by journalists asking for a quote, either tell them there is nothing to see here and they should move on, or else refer them on to Relate or similar for a quote about available counselling.
Feature Pic courtesy Polly Morgan – thanks