Adversarial legal system is ’no place’ for divorce

A new book says couples should be compelled to take part in parenting plans and mediation before issuing divorce proceedings

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 01:12

Family law solicitor Helen Collins is at her practice in Skibbereen, Co Cork, chatting informally with two clients. Both of the young women have lost their partners and are there for legal advice. Both are upset. One of them is telling the other two how important the support in the community has been since her partner died.

“People will actually cross the street to commiserate with me,” she says. The other woman, whose partner has left her, remarks: “People will actually cross the street to avoid me.”

“The question of shame, embarrassment and failure plays a big part,” Collins says, recalling that exchange.

“In Ireland we say we’re really good at dealing with death. With divorce, I think it’s that we don’t know what to say and don’t know how to behave. We’re a bit young at that.”

Divorce is a phenomenon that is still relatively new to this State, having been legal since just 1996. Collins says there are “certainly” women clients of hers who would say the stigma of divorce still exists today.

“I think people find the concept of separation and divorce much more embarrassing than they do death,” she says. “There seems to be something cleaner and more straightforward about being a widow than there is about being a divorced person. Hopefully that’s easing.”

She says the options facing a couple seeking to divorce can be boiled down to two options: “either you go forward by agreement or you end up in court”. Collins has recently published a book, A Short Guide to Divorce Law in Ireland , which sets out “signposts” for couples in this position.

Launching the title earlier this year, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, a family law solicitor himself, said it recognised “the impact of emotion on couples’ responses to the legal aspects of the divorce process”. This is one of the key issues for Collins, and the book seeks to bridge the gap between complicated legal situations and the emotional “wasteland” couples find themselves in, as Collins describes it.

“When somebody comes through the door to me, they are usually shell- shocked,” she says. “One person has come to another person in a marriage and said ‘I want to leave’. Most people, when that happens to them, are in a state of total shock.

“Some of my clients in that state of shock describe it as like being in a parallel universe. That’s where the bereavement comes in. It is a full-blown bereavement. It’s about as devastating a situation as you can imagine. You have at least one person, if not both, grieving and in shock, going through all of these hugely strong emotions – and you’re trying to make decisions.

“Widows and widowers are told not to make any big decisions while they are grieving. But when somebody comes into me, I’m probably asking them to make some of the biggest decisions of their lives when they’re least able to make those decisions. You can see very fast where the wheels might start to come off the wagon.

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