“Honestly, it’s been brilliant,” says Gemma. “It’s so refreshing not having to come up with reasons for a divorce – when it’s rarely as clear cut as that. It’s also great that couples can apply jointly for a divorce.”
She adds: “What I would say is that I’m not sure if the 20-week period before the conditional order can be made is necessary. In my experience, if a couple has decided to divorce that’s generally a decision which has taken some thought and typically waiting another 20 weeks isn’t going to change that decision. In fact, this time could see an agreement start to unravel.”
Gemma says that while this is a new approach to divorce, the system appears to be working well.
“While couples can apply themselves for a divorce online, we’d always encourage them to seek legal advice as well and while we are, in theory, allowed to act for both parties, it is much better that each party has their own lawyer,” she says.
Gemma adds that there has been a shift in family law over the past few years to keep cases away from courts, using mediation, arbitration and dispute resolution.
Gemma always wanted to be a lawyer, saying she was initially attracted by the television programme ‘LA Law’ and dreamt of being a ‘sexy’ corporate lawyer.
“I was also particularly good at arguing – so thought this would stand me in good stead,” she says with a smile.
Her interest in corporate law faded though when, on work experience with one firm, she was left alone in a room on a hot day to read a book about the rules of the Stock Exchange.
Gemma then worked at a ‘High Street’ firm which did ‘a bit of everything’ and discovered that she enjoyed family law.
“I liked the client contact and the human stories connected with that,” she explains. “As I did more and more of it, the more comfortable I became with it.”
Colleagues say that Gemma is an ideal family lawyer as she has a ‘calming demeanour’ and ‘puts people at their ease’. Gemma says that it’s important to win the trust of her clients, as she needs them to feel safe enough to tell her the truth at what can be a really traumatic time.
Before joining CooperBurnett seven years ago, Gemma worked in both Hastings and at another firm in Tunbridge Wells.
“CooperBurnett is a fantastic place to work because everyone is so supportive of each other and made to feel valued – which is so important,” she says. “Because the firm fosters this culture, it naturally filters down to our clients and they feel valued too. Importantly, we have developed really good relationships with other law firms in the area and that helps when they are on the other side to us, as we don’t add to any animosity.”
She adds that there’s a real benefit to being a firm which has a wide breadth of service offerings.
“A divorce is never solely just about family law,” says Gemma. “Very often there’s a house to be sold, which means there’s a need for conveyancing, and sometimes a couple can be involved in the same business, so you need corporate advice. Alternatively, one partner could have the other partner working in their business and wants to remove them… which can lead to the need for employment advice. It helps to be able to refer work between us here.”
Gemma also provides family advice and support through both Citizen’s Advice, which she volunteers for once a month, and through DAVSS as well – a local domestic abuse charity.
“Not only am I providing support but it’s really useful for me to help people in different situations; it broadens my experience and makes me a better lawyer,” she explains.
When she’s not at work, Gemma enjoys travel – she’s recently been to Thailand – looking after her dog, practicing daily yoga, learning languages and running. She’s also recently developed an interest in art, as she’s been supporting her daughter with her art GCSE.
Asked about the best thing about her role, Gemma says it’s seeing her clients change over time.
"I often initially see somebody who has lost all their confidence and is sometimes scared,” she says. “Over time, it’s gratifying to see them becoming stronger and more independent. It’s a joy to release them back into ‘the wild’ at the end of the process’.”