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Would you get a divorce from WHSmith?

Wedding cake split down middle

Shops and banks will soon be able to offer legal advice, and WHSmith has plans for ‘legal access points’ advising on all things from will writing to getting a divorce. But can they really offer the advice you need?

As a lawyer, you might expect me to screw my nose up at the idea of getting divorce advice on the high street, but I happen to think it’s a good idea.

As long as the advice you’re getting is sound, does it really matter who you get it from?

Get a good deal

For too long now, lawyers have seen themselves as incredibly clever, articulate and wonderful beings. But being a lawyer is a job the same as anything else.

Yes, you have to study and gain experience, but that doesn’t automatically entitle you to charge £600 an hour – or more! For most people, seeing a lawyer is an unaffordable luxury – and that is just plain wrong.

Opponents are arguing that stores will hire recent graduates to dish out advice. So what? As long as they’re well-trained so that their advice is relevant and reliable, I don’t see what the problem is.

The truth is, you don’t need a highly-qualified lawyer giving you expensive advice on everything. If you haven’t got children and there’s little disagreement about who’s getting what, divorce can easily be a paper exercise that you do yourself.

The market needs some competition

On the other hand, if it’s uncontested and you’ve got children, it can be very traumatic and you will need professional advice. But it can also be very, very expensive – I’ve got friends who’ve shelled out a staggering £30,000 going through divorce proceedings. Surely some competition coming into the market isn’t a bad thing.

Plus, there will still be protection for those areas of advice that are reserved to solicitors. That’s because all practising solicitors are governed by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and have to comply with the Solicitors Code of Conduct.

If I’ve got any concerns about this move it’s that advisers must know what they’re talking about when they’re giving advice on non-regulated activities. But, as the CAB proves, it’s perfectly possible to teach someone to give legal advice.

Brands create trust

We love brands because they create trust – and that’s exactly why this could work.

WHSmith, John Lewis and Tesco are all brands who take their reputations very seriously. If they employ a bunch of Muppets who give rubbish advice, they’ll feel a profit-bashing backlash that will tarnish their reputation – so they are likely to pay a lot of attention to quality control.

Would I go into Tesco and sit in a little room by the onions to get divorce advice? Probably not – because I don’t want an MDF wall separating my misery from a pile of vegetables. But at least I’ll have the choice to decide which advice – and price bracket – suits me.


About 1970 I was working for Which? on a number of articles about legal services.

One lady wrote in. She was so dissatisfied with her solicitor’s performance that she had a meeting with a member of the Law Society’s complaints department. During this she mentioned that her solicitor’s advice differed from that in a Which? consumer guide on probate.

The reponse was to question whether she would use “the Family Doctor” to treat her children when they were ill. She replied that it was a very useful publication which she frequently used and that, when she was cooking her husband’s supper, she did not go out to ask a chef what she could find in a recipe book.

John – your comment made me chuckle! I completely agree – I think there are situations in which it’s advisable to hire a professional, but sometimes it seems like overkill. I have often wondered why you need to hire someone at £400 per hour just to photocopy some documents on a house purchase and post them to someone else hired at £400 an hour to open them.

A good comparison might be computer repair. Sometimes it’s worth taking something to an expert and asking them to fix it (I’ve done this a few times), but other times a quick scan of a computing magazine or five minutes on Google will give you the knowledge to sort it for yourself.

Phil says:
14 April 2011

Well they might charge £400 an hour but having had a barrister in the family and knowing a young woman who’s a Legal Secretary I know that conveyancing and divorces either get dumped on the most junior partner of even the LS herself. Same applies to probate.

This is all somewhat familiar though. Anybody remember Mr Whatshisname?