Having watched Mrs Doubtfire a number of times growing up, when I found out that I was being placed in a seat in matrimonial law I was, I think understandably, somewhat nervous.

Popular culture has to a large extent portrayed divorce as a process that is exhausting, emotional and often involving more than a little character assassination. Divorce lawyers are presented as cold, unyielding and altogether unconcerned by the importance of maintaining a positive family dynamic.

For those who haven’t seen it, Mrs Doubtfire centres around the story of actor Daniel Hillard (played by the inimitable Robin Williams). Following a particularly unfortunate scene in which Daniel throws a petting zoo party for his son inside his own home only to be dobbed in to his wife, Miranda, by his intolerably nosy neighbour, Miranda decides that enough is enough and she wants a divorce.

What ensues is a particularly messy situation in which a judge, somewhat hoodwinked by Miranda’s vitriol into believing that Daniel is unfit to be a father, rules that he should only be able to see his children under supervision. Pained by this separation from his children, Daniel disguises himself as an elderly Scottish nanny by the name of Euphegenia Doubtfire and gains employment at the Hillard residence.

In my now nearly five months of matrimonial law, I am yet to see anything quite as dramatic but I often wonder how Daniel and Miranda’s divorce could have been handled differently.

First things first, I would probably say: ‘do absolutely none of the above. Let’s deal with the child arrangements in a mature manner and prove to the court you are fit to be a parent.’ But secondly I would say: ‘don’t get dragged into a war of words with Miranda.’ 

Throughout the move Miranda, perhaps understandably given her husband’s repeated childish antics, is overcome by the divorce process and loses sight of what ought to be the overall aim in these circumstances: maintain a positive family relationship for the benefit of the children. At one point in the film, an exasperated Daniel exclaims "You’re just trying to erase it like it doesn’t exist. You’re trying to destroy the fact that we’re a family."

In my seat thus far I have been struck by how much is done, where possible, to maintain the family dynamic where children are involved. Passed in June 2020, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act has reformed the divorce process in the UK to remove the idea of fault. This has been done in attempt to reduce the kinds of conflicts that we see tearing the Hillard family apart, and causing Daniel to resort to extreme and inadvisable measures. The impact of these conflicts can be truly devastating, and often spill over into the parent’s relationships with their children. At one of the few dinners he is able to have with his children, Daniel sarcastically quips that "he would hate to think that she [Miranda] came down with amoebic dysentery or piles."

One way that I have noticed that matrimonial law seeks to veer away from the sort of breakdown in communication that we see in Mrs Doubtfire is to focus primarily on the financial aspects of the relationship. The child arrangements and the finances are dealt with separately. This focuses the issues in dispute and helps to ensure that the parties do not lose sight of what is being contested. Whilst there are many arenas in which Jessie J’s famous pronouncement that it ‘ain’t about the, uh, cha-ching cha-ching’ rings true, matrimonial law is certainly not one of them.

Having elected to get divorced both Miranda and Daniel would, if in the UK, have filled out a Form E. What a Form E does is essential boil the dispute down to the numbers. It sets out both Daniel and Miranda’s assets and liabilities (their properties, their income, their investments etc) and it creates an overall picture of the financial situation which allows for a settlement to be reached in a way that shares the assets that have been matrimonialised but also meets needs. Where children are involved, this often includes, for example, ensuring that Daniel was staying in a flat far nicer than the one he found, so that he might offer the children a standard of living closer to what they enjoyed when staying with their mother.

Overall, whilst the movie is somewhat farcical, it offers a number of important reflections on the divorce process. Although I would have warned Daniel against most of his actions, the resulting conclusion is a rather heart-warming situation in which both Miranda and Daniel realise that they need to put the children first. Having landed a television role as Mrs Doubtfire, Daniel replies to a letter sent in by a young child by saying: "Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you."

By removing fault and separating child and financial arrangements, the divorce process is moving towards something that eschews conflict in pursuit of, where possible and beneficial, an amicable split. On the occasions that this goes well, it can be very rewarding to be a part of a process that is often presented as chaotic, damaging and draining.