The Split: How well does it represent real-life divorce?

by | 9 Mar 2020

I’m a little late to the party but I’ve finally watched The Split. I’m fascinated by the world of family law and I love a good BBC drama, and I now proclaim myself a fan. 

As I watched, at times I found myself nodding with recognition and at others I bristled uncomfortably. Here are some of my thoughts from my perspective as a coach and as a mother.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) means reaching a solution without going to court. 

The Split features several meetings where opposing parties convene with their respective lawyers to try to reach an agreement. This is a form of ‘collaborative law’ or a ‘round table discussion’ and certainly a worthy way of dealing with conflict. ADR is better than going to court, but it’s still not being used as much as it could be. There will, of course, always be families for whom court is the only way forward.

Not once in the two series did I hear the solicitors recommend mediation (maybe that would dull the plot) or suggest other means of settling dispute, though court was threatened several times. As a coach, I am an advocate for keeping families away from the courtroom, whereas the lawyers seemed to have few qualms about exacerbating conflict, leaving court inevitable.  In England and Wales you have to give mediation a go before you can apply to court, but it still could be more strongly encouraged and it is far from the norm. 

Needs, not numbers

Donna Air’s character, Fi Hansen, was party to a ‘Child Arrangements’ case: that is, a legal process to ascertain where the children should live and how much time they should spend with both parents. In one meeting, Fi’s lawyer and her ex husband Richie’s were discussing ‘the figures’ for how their children would divide their time. I winced as I watched. 

Child Arrangements must be organised according to what will work best for your children. This will take all sorts of things into account: it’s not about who spends x% of time with the children and it cannot be determined by a calculator. Yes, an agreed schedule is a great idea but should be based on on needs, not numbers. Lawyers and judges will make decisions with regard to the Welfare Principle and they have broad discretion beyond that: however, they don’t know your children. If you are considering making an application to the Family Court, it is always worth thinking to your life beyond, and contemplating if and how the Family Court can really provide any meaningful resolution.

Both parents matter

There was an incident in Series One where the lawyers were clearly using the child as a pawn, and were using the threat of reduced contact with one parent (comedian Rex Pope) as leverage in an unrelated issue – in this case, reputational damage. Using children in this way is no doubt tempting if one parent is making life difficult, but it is not fair on the children. The point was clearly made that children need to spend time with both parents, but this was contradicted by the actions of lawyer Hannah, who went so far as to hide a child in her office to prevent him from seeing his father. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when this was resolved, and really hope this is a work of fiction and not representative of reality.

Winning and losing

The frequently-made suggestion that the better lawyer will ‘win’ raises questions about the nature of litigation. 

There is no doubt that complex cases require skilful lawyers, but Family Law is rarely a case of winning and losing. Family Law should be about good outcomes: there will be moments when you feel you’ve got what you wanted – you can call this ‘winning’. Perhaps a better outcome is when neither party – that is, neither mum nor dad – gets exactly what they want, but they achieve a compromise, ideally reached without undue conflict.

When it comes to Child Arrangements, the children are the ones who need to win. Perhaps you need a solicitor or judge to help with this, but chances are you don’t. You almost definitely need support to navigate the legal process and find the best way to deal with dispute. The world of conflict resolution is new territory for most parents. Fortunately there are many people in the field of family law who can help you.

A sense of winning and losing is perhaps inevitable when it comes to the ugly subject of finances, but if you punish your spouse in this way, your children will be indirectly punished as well. That said, the characters in the drama didn’t seem especially concerned for their financial futures. There was a hint of non-disclosure in Series One (immediately remedied by the suggestion of sending a forensic accountant to the marital home). I don’t recall mention of Universal Credit, benefits, shared ownership housing or dads dodging Child Maintenance. This is the reality for many divorcing mums.

Behind closed doors…

To my mind, the lawyers in The Split seemed to have a disproportionate amount of time to get involved in personal scandal. Far be it for me to say this is unrealistic, but the complaint on the lips of many solicitors is that of being stressed and overworked. The President of the Family Division is keen to reduce family lawyers’ workload and to improve their emotional wellbeing: this should benefit all involved. So, The Split certainly offers a reminder that we’re all human, regardless of whether you’re lawyer or client; applicant or respondent, mum or dad. The full humanity of the lawyers was certainly explored in the series: hopes, dreams and disasters.

“Every divorce lawyer needs at least one divorce under their belt, preferably his own.”
So says Christie at an engagement party at the end of Series Two. I’m inclined to agree: well, not that your divorce lawyer needs to have been divorced, but that you have people in your wider support team with first-hand experience of separation. This allows them to empathise with you and anticipate all the challenges ahead of you. The legal side is only one facet of your divorce. There are some tremendously kind and empathic family lawyers but their remit is quite specific, and your needs are almost certainly wider. 

I am a coach, a mum and a divorcée and I’ve been where you are. If you’re looking for help to navigate the divorce process, please get in touch today by clicking the orange button at the bottom of this page, and we can arrange a time to chat.

If you haven’t see The Split, it’s available on BBC iPlayer.


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