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Not so long ago I struck up conversation with an Anglo-Australian lady in her early forties.  In the course of telling her a little about me I mentioned that I am a civil and family mediator.  This interested her greatly and she recounted her experience of getting divorced in Australia.  For present purposes I will refer to her as Maria and her ex-husband as Tom.

I was told of a very acrimonious divorce that had eventually been resolved about five years ago.  Maria and her ex-husband are business entrepreneurs with extensive and, by all accounts, very valuable property portfolios.  She described herself as a high achiever and with what appeared to be a tinge of regret, referred to having been privately educated and graduating with a double first from Oxford University.

Prior to their divorce life had been good for Maria and Tom.  They were both asset and cash rich, lived quite extravagantly and sent their two daughters to an exclusive private school.

About seven years ago, Maria and Tom fell out as she put it, “big time”.  She started divorce proceedings and two years of bitter dispute ensued.  Both engaged very costly, top flight law firms to represent them.  This resulted in a lot of inconsequential blame and fault-focused correspondence being generated together with a few very short but nonetheless expensive court hearings without anything tangible being achieved.  The couple’s business interests suffered badly resulting in them losing thousands of dollars and to make matters worse, Maria’s ex distanced himself from their two distraught daughters by now aged 10 and 12 which put even more pressure on her.

For some reason, even though they were patently achieving nothing, neither firm of lawyers had ever seen fit to even mention the word “mediation”.  At what she termed “the eleventh hour” a business acquaintance of Maria’s mentioned mediation and explained its benefits.  Subsequently, over a period of only five weeks, the mediator adopted a robust approach and urged Maria and Tom in the strongest possible terms to abandon any notions of fault and blame.  She helped them to focus on what was important and with the benefit of some additional input from an astute and independent financial adviser, a fair, mutually acceptable settlement was achieved and endorsed by the court.  Maria did not give me exact figures but explained that her legal bill alone was in excess of 30,000 dollars and that she and Tom had paid the mediator and financial adviser a combined total of around only 5000 dollars.

In some respects, all well and good.  The mediator achieved in five weeks, at very reasonable cost, what two firms of expensive lawyers had failed to achieve in two years.  Relations between Maria’s ex and the children were restored and all concerned were relieved to get back to some semblance of normality.

However, it was only at that point that Maria and Tom started to count the cost and realised the extent of their financial losses.  Because a lot of their wealth was tied up in property and investments, much of which was either mortgaged or subject to complex legal agreements, the bulk of their spare cash had been used partly for daily living expenses and partly and more pertinently for their expensive lawyers.  Because the business interests had been neglected very little income was generated during the ongoing divorce proceedings and hard times ensued.  Neither Maria nor Tom could afford to raise income on their property assets because of very high bank overdraft charges and mortgage repayments, and despite being wealthy ‘on paper’ they were both cash strapped.

One particular piece of fallout was that it had been hoped that Maria and Tom’s daughters would follow in their mother’s educational footsteps.  Instead, they had to leave their private school.  Fortunately, both daughters were quite unfazed by this and five years on were academic stars achieving the highest possible grades and were expected to go to university and do as well as their mother had done.

However, it was clear that irrespective of any such considerations, Maria still felt that she had let her daughters down very badly.  Equally, although she and Tom forgave one another and to some extent their business interests recovered, five years on, both were still weighed down by the acrimonious divorce process and bitterly resented having had to pay their lawyers so much money. Near to tears, Maria told me that she would probably never ever come to terms with things and that her terrible divorce process would haunt her for the rest of her life.

This is by no means the first time that I have heard such an anecdote.  However, I found Maria’s graphic account to be heart rending and if I ever needed reminding about the benefits of family mediation this was the case.

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