It takes a light touch to communicate the needs and concerns of those working in family law. Matt Bryant, head of communications at Resolution – formerly known as the Solicitors Family Law Association – doesn’t send witty Twitter posts, nor does he organise press junkets or chivvy members into photo opportunities or media appearances.
But that presents challenges of its own for Bryant, who has spent his whole working life in communications and lobbying – his first job after leaving university in 2000 was working for a lighting industry trade association. He’s also been a local councillor.
Bryant has been at Resolution for five years and without any background in the legal profession it was the campaigning work that attracted him. ‘Working on real issues that affect real people was tempting,’ he says. ‘There is a passion at Resolution for making life better for families.’ At the time he joined, Resolution was going through a period of change spearheaded by its new chief executive Colin Jones and it was the chance to go in at the start of the process that attracted Bryant.
Resolution is a membership organisation. It has 6,500 solicitors, financial advisers and family mediators paying up to £200 year for membership (when it was founded in 1983 there were just 30 members). While for many Resolution offers a way of networking with others in the industry, for Bryant it is the campaigning side that is vital. Currently the main focus of Resolution is to try to change the way divorce is handled in England and Wales – to make it less confrontational. Its members comply with a Code of Practice designed to make an often difficult time as easy as possible.
But one thing that really doesn’t help make divorce civilised is that in England and Wales there is no such thing as no fault divorce – unless a couple has been separated for at least two years. So if you want a divorce before that, then one party has to admit fault. ‘Blaming one party isn’t helpful,’ says Bryant. ‘What happens is that people are forced to find reasons to blame their ex. It doesn’t pave the way for an amicable separation.’
Each year in England and Wales, there are about 110,000 divorces: affecting nearly quarter of a million adults and of course their children. These days, very few divorces end up in front of a judge – the role of family lawyers has changed markedly so that much of what they do is negotiation between both sides.
‘Most civilised countries have no fault divorce,’ says Bryant. ‘The USA does and Spain, even though the latter is a Catholic country. We have to accept that divorce is a fact of life: it’s a sad fact, but people do want to end relationships and it would make things much more civilised if they could do so without apportioning blame.’
Bryant says that Resolution is lucky that it has ‘active members who are passionate about no-fault divorce’. These active members, who comprise about one tenth of the membership, are involved in the lobbying.
Last year Bryant organised the first ever Good Divorce week, which involved 150 Resolution members going to Westminster to lobby MPs. But given the sensitive subject matter, the campaign didn’t involve any publicity stunts. ‘Some did ask whether we were going to have placards,’ says Bryant. ‘But that would have been the wrong tone. We want to have a serious conversation about it: we do not need to create trouble or be light-hearted.’
Even so, members did tweet pictures of themselves at the House of Commons, explaining why they had signed up to Resolution’s Code of Practice. And there was plenty of media coverage of the event with features in The Daily Telegraph and the Solicitors’ Journal, mentions on TV and radio including ITV News and Woman’s Hour. Overall, the event resulted in the most coverage ever for any Resolution campaign. Social media also took off – there were more than 2,700 tweets using the #abetterway hashtag, which Bryant says means they reached potentially 5.5 million users.
The conundrum is that while Resolution wants to promote no fault divorce, it needs to make sure that it is not seen to be promoting divorce. The two can get mistakenly conflated, says Bryant. ‘It is not about making divorce easy. Divorce is still difficult. Our work is about making divorce non-confrontational.’ However, the problem that Resolution faces is that changing the law to make no-fault divorce a reality just isn’t a priority for the Government – the issue has been campaigned on for nigh on 30 years without progressing to the statute books.
While the work of Resolution is serious, Bryant says there are occasions when his communications role is more light-hearted. He does get contacted by script writers for help in writing divorce scenes, but when they are told that these days divorce is seldom a dramatic process involving bewigged judges they can be disappointed and gloss over that for dramatic effect. Bryant has also tried to dispel the myth that there are more divorces after Christmas. ‘Divorce happens all year round. We did run a story on our website pulling that myth apart.’ However, it is still doing the rounds – indeed, one firm of lawyers (albeit in the USA) have dubbed the first Monday after Christmas ‘Divorce Day’.
There are other myths that Bryant is trying to destroy – namely, that the status of common law partners exists and also that you can get divorced online. On the first, Resolution is keen to get across to co-habiting couples that their rights on separation are not comparable to those divorcing. And, while you can download divorce forms, you can’t actually complete the process online.
All these campaigns need the help of the membership – and Bryant is involved in Resolution’s latest recruitment drive which is trying to reach out to those involved in family law who aren’t lawyers such as financial advisers and mediators. ‘Family law is a niche area,’ he adds. ‘There are many different components; it is a vast, complicated field. For our membership to do what they do and give up their time for campaigning – I feel truly lucky.’