Client: Solicitors Family Law Association
PR Team: Fishburn Hedges
Campaign: Divorces: A Fair Deal for Families
Timescale: March 1995 - present
Budget: pounds 60,000
Fishburn Hedges has just picked up the 1996 IPR Sword of Excellence for
its work on this campaign to promote the importance of legal advice for
divorcing couples. Its client, the Solicitors Family Law Association,
was concerned that changes outlined in the Government’s White Paper on
Divorce might force those going through a divorce into mediation when it
was not appropriate.
Now before Parliament as the Family Law Bill, the Government’s proposals
represent the biggest shake-up in family law in 25 years. The Bill
proposes replacing the existing fault-based system, where couples can
divorce quickly by alleging adultery or unreasonable behaviour, with a
minimum waiting period of a year.
During that year couples would be asked to try and resolve the
consequences of divorce through mediation. Although SFLA, which
represents 3,600 family lawyers, promotes a conciliatory approach to
marriage breakdown, it was concerned that couples should have access to
independent legal advice before, during and after any mediation, on the
grounds that without husband and wife both understanding their legal
rights mediation was unlikely to be fair - particularly if for
emotional, physical or financial reasons one party was weaker than the
As the Bill proposed a diminished role for lawyers, Fishburn Hedges had
to be careful that SFLA’s concerns were not dismissed as shameless self-
‘We had to make sure we weren’t just seen as lawyers after legal aid
money,’ says Fishburn Hedges consultant Graham McMillan. Other
objectives were to position SFLA as championing the concerns of people
going through divorce and as an authoritative source of information and
opinion on family law.
A team was formed to handle the consultancy relationship and, through a
dedicated SFLA press office, make speedy responses to any Government
A survey of SFLA clients - ordinary people who would be directly
affected by the Government’s proposals - was carried out. Over 1,100
responses were received, the majority of which squared with SFLA’s
concerns: 77 per cent wanted access to independent legal advice
throughout the mediation process, only 28 per cent thought that their
divorce could be dealt with amicably by a mediator.
Key target audiences were identified, among them the Lord Chancellor and
his officials, the Shadow Lord Chancellor, peers and backbench MPs,
national media legal correspondents and the legal press. The Lord
Chancellor was invited to speak at a specially-arranged seminar which
gave SFLA members the chance to express their views to him in person.
The central plank of the campaign was a lobbying programme arranged by
Fishburn Hedges. This included presentations by SFLA to four backbench
committees on family law issues (two all-party, one Conservative, one
Labour); meetings with the Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Social
Security Secretary and other key Labour politicians; a delegation to the
Number 10 Policy Unit; visits to both the Labour and Conservative party
conferences; and contacts with numerous backbenchers.
Briefing papers were sent out to more than 80 interested peers prior to
the second reading of the Bill in the Lords.
SFLA’s views were given extensive coverage across the national broadcast
and print media. All its amendments to the Bill were tabled and
discussed in the Lords and a statement from the Lord Chancellor’s
Department commended the body for its ‘balanced and well-considered
During the Standing Committee debate on the night of May 14, the day
after the IPR award was bestowed, the Government agreed that there would
not be a presumption in favour of mediation - SFLA’s argument all along.
‘We’ve achieved a lot, says SFLA chairman Nigel Shepherd.
A worthy Sword of Excellence winner.