Thought Leadership

The law and love lost: Supporting vulnerable clients when relationships breakdown

The end of a relationship is never easy. For some, the challenges are intensified by mental illness, personal circumstances, or having been in an abusive relationship. Sophie Chapman, Partner at Stewarts, explains how family law defines and protects vulnerable clients. Gain insights from her experience advising clients on complex family cases with an international dimension.

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The end of a relationship is never easy. For some, the challenges are intensified by mental illness, personal circumstances, or having been in an abusive relationship. We spoke with Sophie Chapman, Partner at Stewarts, on the legal frameworks and support mechanisms designed to protect "vulnerable clients".

In our discussion, Sophie shares insight gained advising clients on complex family cases. Whether you're navigating a difficult separation or supporting someone who is, understanding these protections can help to secure the right help and ensure a more secure and supported journey through this difficult time.

How does Stewarts define "vulnerable clients" in the context of a relationship breakdown?

Relationship breakdown is widely recognised as one of the most difficult times in a person’s life.  As family lawyers at Stewarts, we have extensive experience working with other professionals, such as Cavendish Family Office, to support vulnerable clients to include those who:

  • Are struggling with stress and other mental health concerns, either caused or exacerbated by the breakdown of their relationship, managing a difficult co-parenting relationship or perhaps the stress of court proceedings (while simultaneously trying to keep the ship afloat in their personal and professional lives);
  • Have been in physically, emotionally and/or financially abusive relationships (including those who have been subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour);
  • Are vulnerable by virtue of their age, position in society, physical health, language barriers and/or mental capacity issues which may limit a client or their partner’s ability to make decisions and move their case forward without appropriate support;
  • Are in the public eye and vulnerable to intense external scrutiny (from the press or otherwise), due to their own celebrity, political exposure, and/or being at the forefront of their profession.

Could you tell me how your firm makes sure vulnerable people are protected during family legal proceedings? What laws or guidelines do you follow?

As family lawyers, we have a professional framework to ensure our practice protects vulnerable people in family proceedings.  This includes legislation, rules, and guidance, such as:

  • The landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, together with ongoing developments in case law, seek to provide greater protection from all forms of abuse, and strengthen measures to tackle perpetrators;
  • The Family Procedural Rules, which include an overriding objective requiring family lawyers to identify vulnerable clients and assist the court to ensure they can participate in proceedings without the quality of their evidence being diminished;
  • The Law Society and also Resolution (which is a community of family lawyers, including all Stewarts family lawyers, who are committed to resolving issues in a constructive way) have extensive best practice guidance in relation to meeting the needs of vulnerable clients.

Can you provide examples of cases involving vulnerable clients going through a relationship breakdown that your firm has successfully handled in the past?

We will always ensure you have a voice in the legal process, which can be particularly important for clients whose voices have been suppressed during their relationship.  For example, one of our clients issued divorce proceedings after many years of suffering physical and emotional abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour.  Through that process, she shared her experience with us which, due to concern that she would not be believed, she had not told anyone before.  This allowed us to support her, and we put in place adaptive measures to enable her to participate fully in the proceedings.  At the conclusion of the case, she felt ready to start the next chapter of her life, financially and emotionally secure, and as the sole parent to her young son.  

Another client was experiencing severe mental health issues at the time we were instructed, following many years of domestic abuse within her marriage.  After being supported by her family and medical professionals, she grew in strength and confidence throughout the divorce process, had absolute confidence in her team and felt empowered by having her lawyers at Stewarts champion and protect her best interests.  She now runs a successful business of her own.

Can you discuss any specific challenges your firm has encountered when representing vulnerable clients in complex or high-conflict divorce or separation cases, and how you have addressed these challenges?

If a client is particularly vulnerable, there is often a significant difference in the power dynamics between the parties. This can often feel challenging for clients where there has been a history of domestic abuse, or if a client is the financially weaker party and has been excluded from decision making throughout the relationship. In high-conflict cases, we address these challenges by lowering the temperature, remaining outcome-focused and building our client’s confidence throughout the process. While we always have a firm grasp of the detail in complex cases, our priority is providing straightforward, strategic advice in plain English which empowers our vulnerable clients to make the big-picture decisions.

What support services or resources does your firm offer to help vulnerable clients access counselling, financial assistance, or other forms of support during a relationship breakdown?

It is natural to feel overwhelmed and confused when your relationship breaks down.  We can help you to put in place a support network to assist you throughout the divorce process and after its conclusion.  This can include ensuring you receive support from therapists, coaches, parenting counsellors, financial advisors, family offices, bankers, property agents, accountants, and tax advisers etc. (to name a few!).  

Cavendish Family Office has provided invaluable support to a number of our clients, including: assisting clients with the preparation of their financial disclosure; introducing them to independent financial advisors and, alongside those advisors, assisting clients to invest the settlement monies received on divorce, to manage their investments and to establish and manage their household and personal expenditure going forward; supporting clients with the sale of the family home and purchase and set up of a new home in the prime central London property market; and providing PA services to support clients to plan and run their family life going forward.

In what ways does your firm address the unique needs of vulnerable clients undergoing a relationship breakdown, such as those experiencing mental health issues or domestic abuse?

The family team at Stewarts offers a bespoke service, which we adapt to the needs of vulnerable clients.    

We discuss how we can best support you through the process.  This includes discussions around which process option is best for you and your case, for example mediation, collaborative law, discussions and negotiations through solicitors, arbitration or, if progress cannot be made through an alternative dispute mechanism, court proceedings.  

If court proceedings are required, we can ask the court to make adjustments to the usual process, such as having a remote hearing (as opposed to attendance in person), providing evidence via video-link or having the physical barrier of a privacy screen in court.  

Out of court, we can ensure negotiations (whether in relation to finances or the arrangements for children) take place in an appropriate format.  This can include the lawyers ‘shuttling’ between rooms to ensure you can remain separate from your ex-partner and always have your own space.  We can also build in additional breaks throughout the day to ensure matters proceed at a pace you are comfortable with.

Day-to-day, we will always propose solutions and next steps at the same time as notifying you of a new issue or development to reduce case-related anxiety and allow you to look forward and make decisions with confidence.  We will discuss how and when you want to hear from us to ensure you feel supported and able to tackle issues when they arise.  For example, this may include calling you before sending substantive communications so there are no nasty surprises in your inbox, ensuring nothing is sent to you on a Friday just before the weekend (unless urgent) and making sure we are available to you (in person or on Zoom as you prefer) to discuss all major issues as they arise.

For those in vulnerable situations or supporting someone vulnerable during a relationship breakdown, what key recommendations would you give to ensure their legal rights and well-being are protected?

Taking legal advice at the earliest available opportunity is the best means of protection, as it will ensure you are aware of your rights and the options available to you from the outset. Taking this proactive step also reduces that horrible feeling of the fear of the unknown at this daunting time. If you are supporting a vulnerable friend or family member who is finding it difficult to know what to do next, encouraging them to take early legal advice can help set the wheels in motion.

From a well-being perspective, vulnerable clients often find therapeutic support to be invaluable while navigating the legal aspects of relationship breakdown, and self-care is incredibly important to develop healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, mindfulness, or simply carving out time to spend with loved ones.


We are committed to ensuring all clients receive the support they need during challenging times. If you or someone you know is navigating a difficult separation, please do get in touch to discuss how we can help protect your rights and well-being.

Mark Estcourt

CEO at Cavendish Family Office

Mark Estcourt,
CEO Cavendish Family Office
Sophie Chapman
Partner, Stewarts
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