CAMPAIGNS: PUBLIC AFFAIRS; Legal eagles win part in big break

Client: Solicitors Family Law Association PR Team: Fishburn Hedges Campaign: Divorces: A Fair Deal for Families Timescale: March 1995 - present Budget: pounds 60,000

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

other.



Objectives



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-

interest.



‘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.



Tactics



A team was formed to handle the consultancy relationship and, through a

dedicated SFLA press office, make speedy responses to any Government

announcements.



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.



Results



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

approach’.



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.



Verdict



A worthy Sword of Excellence winner.



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