Lawyers queue up to be quoted on anecdotes not truths

The season of love, peace and goodwill is truly over for yet another year as ‘divorce day’ is once more greeted by family practitioners across the country.

Arriving back at SJ Towers after the festive break, I found my inbox and Twitter feed awash with press releases and news stories about ‘D-Day for couples’ as lawyers prepare to be inundated with requests from squabbling partners keen to break their marital ties after a lacklustre Christmas.

A recent poll of 2,000 spouses by Irwin Mitchell suggested one in five married couples were considering separating from their partners after staying together over the festive period. John Nicholson, a partner at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Sadly our figures show that the January divorce spike is no myth. Every year we see a marked rise in enquiries and instructions in January from people who have decided that the time is right to separate from their partner.

“Many appointments will have been made in December by people who were already planning to start the divorce process in the New Year, while others may have had a bad time over the holiday period and realised that they want to make a fresh start in January.”

The results of the poll mirrored a survey by relationship support charity OnePlusOne, which found a quarter of parents had secretly considered separating from or divorcing their partner. Jo O’Sullivan, who advises OnePlusOne, commented: “We definitely see a peak in enquiries about divorce in January and by the time people come to us for legal advice, emotions can be running high. In TV dramas we see battling parents fighting custody and childcare issues out in court, but court should only ever be a final resort.”

Andrew Newbury, head of family law at Slater & Gordon, told MailOnline: “We see a real spike in people enquiring about divorce in January, with twice as many than any other period. There are a whole host of reasons for this. One is the hot-house pressure of Christmas, with couples cooped up who might also have had too much food and too much alcohol.”

Some enterprising professionals got in on the ‘D-Day’ promotion early, such as Helen Adams, director of BDO Tax Dispute Resolutions who suggested even before Christmas that the tax consequences of divorce should be high on any married couple’s list of considerations when thinking about separating in the New Year.

Then there was Essex-based Trinity Chambers who, on 23 December, tweeted: “We understand that Christmas can be a difficult time for families. Call us for legal support and advice.”

An objective observer might find this all rather depressing. Anecdotally, I witnessed some users of social media compare tweets and press releases like the above to ‘personal injury ambulance chasing TV spots’.

Put another way, if there is an increase in divorce enquiries every January, is this merely because big media continue the same narrative each year, assisted by lawyers all too happy to ‘confirm’ how busy they are, which ultimately leads to people questioning their own relationships?

While that may be a stretch it did, however, start me wondering whether this now yearly phenomenon, and one that has become as predictable as the changing of the tides, is just a self-fulfilling prophecy for family lawyers.

The start of the New Year is always a slow period in terms of news – short of a breaking national disaster or Royal scandal. It is, therefore, unsurprising to see headlines like ‘Divorce day couples rush to untie the knot’ or ‘Lawyers prepare for Divorce Day as Christmas holidays take their toll’.

January is also traditionally a time for many of us, including those within the legal profession, to catch up on what we put off before the start of the holidays and the making of New Year Resolutions. The first month of the year is a quiet period on which to clear that ‘to-do’ list. So you’ll have to forgive me for sounding slightly cynical, but what family practitioner, upon receiving a call from a national newspaper, will admit to saying their office is quiet.

Furthermore, what reporter would write as much in their column if it conflicts with the ongoing narrative that we Brits like to separate at the turn of every year? But before you get out the pitchforks and storm the offices of your (least) favourite publication, Tony Roe, the principal at Tony Roe Solicitors, suggests turning your ire inwards.

“Lawyers are pretty keen on evidence, by and large,” he wrote in 2013. “It goes with the territory. Why then do they give credence to such a myth? Stories about this ‘Manic Monday’ for divorce seem to have increased in number over the last five years or so as this supposed ‘event’ ingrains itself in the media calendar. But don’t blame the journalists. Most family law solicitors do little or nothing to dispel the myth. Instead, we queue up to be quoted.” Thanks Tony.

It would, of course, be churlish of me to suggest that the holidays don’t take their toll on some relationships but the reasons are varied and complicated and not as straightforward as making a mental note to call a solicitor as the clock strikes 12 and an inebriated version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ starts reverberating around pubs, clubs and living rooms across the country.

No doubt some family practitioners will be very busy this January. Others will not. As Tony Roe has previously stated: “If there is any truth about ‘Divorce D-Day’, it is essentially anecdotal.” It seems not much has changed in two years.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 7 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission.