One of the most fiercely disputed issues in a divorce can be the value of the matrimonial home. Matthew Humphries was interviewed recently by Justin Mason, of Justin Mason Valuation, a property valuation consultancy on this topic.
In the interview, Matthew speaks about how he got into the law by chance, and why he thrives on the excitement and challenge of working at an international litigation-only law firm. He also gives his key insights into why an expert witness might be involved when it comes to valuing shared property.
Justin Mason: Please share your background and how you got started in family law.
Matthew Humphries: After graduating from Exeter University in the mid-90s, I started practising as a trainee solicitor. I tried general litigation and then residential conveyancing, but I realised I didn’t want to spend my career doing non-contentious work.
I randomly decided to try family law, found I really enjoyed it and went on to complete my final year as a trainee in the family department. I practised in Bristol for about 14 years and then was enticed by Stephen Foster – my head of department – to work at the central-London law firm Stewarts. I have basically been doing nothing other than divorcing clients for more than 20 years.
JM: What was it about Stewarts that made you want to work there?
MH: There is certainly something unique about Stewarts or was unique back then; other people have emulated the firm since, in so far that it is a litigation-only law firm. We have no non-contentious capability and every lawyer at Stewarts is a litigator.
I was interested in the complexity of the cases that Stewarts could deliver and the international element. Even now, we are working on some of the biggest, most complex cases that appear in the family courts in this jurisdiction.
JM: In your experience, what are the main reasons people get divorced?
MH: I think I’d probably be the world’s most popular relationship counsellor if I knew the answer! Each spouse will have their own view, so there is no one reason. Often, it’s completely innocuous and people have simply grown apart – it’s rarely as dramatic as you see on TV.
I have worked on cases where people have been married for three days and where people are getting divorced after more than 50 years. It’s a very personal, emotional and difficult decision for the vast majority of people. One thing I am always very clear on is that I never advise people on whether they should get divorced; that’s not a legal decision, that’s a personal decision.
JM: What are the main reasons for bringing in an expert witness to value a property, rather than relying on an estate agent’s marketing appraisals?
MH: Using an expert valuer removes any element of uncertainty. While people will try to resolve a valuation dispute using marketing appraisals, estate agents are not experts on valuation for the benefit of a court or a tribunal. They have their own purpose that is, in part, to attract business and be instructed to sell the property.
If you have a high-value or unusual property that doesn’t have a huge number of comparables, estate agents can only produce a broad spectrum of potential values that cannot help in resolving the disagreement. Whereas an expert will bring you certainty in their opinion and can stand up in front of a judge or an arbitrator and explain the reasons why.
JM: Are you seeing many clients look for a shadow valuer, perhaps with a Daniels v Walker application in mind?
MH: In the family court, there is usually a single joint expert chosen by both parties to value the property. This avoids a judge being faced with expert A instructed by the husband who says the property is worth X and expert B instructed by the wife saying the property is worth Y – and then the judge, who is not a valuation expert, having to decide which valuer has got it right.
Occasionally, one party will claim that the single joint expert has made a mistake and will try to challenge it by getting a report from another expert or shadow valuer. To be able to produce that second report you need to persuade a judge that it’s necessary, which is called a Daniels v Walker application, named after the case which established that point of law. However, they are not very common, as the threshold for a successful application is quite high.
JM: What do you think your clients look for in a professional adviser?
MH: Clients want to instruct someone who’s very good at what they do, who is going to make a difference and add value to the process. They are also looking for someone who can communicate the process effectively and help them understand the likely parameters of their situation.
A key part of my job is to ensure that my clients are always aware of what’s going on and what is going to happen next. I would consider it a failure on my part if a client was completely surprised by an outcome. They are engaging you to guide them through the process to get them the best outcome that you possibly can, but also to ensure that they get through the process as effectively and cost-efficiently as possible.
JM: Have you found that more clients are choosing other forms of dispute resolution over litigation?
MH: Things have certainly shifted from a decade ago and are moving more towards alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration. There are a couple of reasons for this: the first is that the Court system is becoming increasingly slow and delayed as a consequence of the pressures upon it, such as diminishing resources and the consequences of the withdrawal of legal aid.
The other is privacy, particularly for our clients. There’s a certain degree of privacy in the court process, but arbitration is completely confidential. We are seeing more steps towards out-of-court settlement and I think that’s a really good thing. But some cases will inevitably be litigated in front of a judge.
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