Lawyer Debbie Bulmer can’t help giggling in between stifling her gasps of disbelief.
She’s still trying to come to terms with the potential client she’s just met – a man who thought that because he and his wife had been separated for more than seven years they were automatically divorced.
She also can’t get over the fact that he hadn’t a clue what his spouse’s maiden name was.
‘Believe it or not, there are many people who still don’t realise that if you’re getting divorced you actually need a lawyer,’ she says.
Debbie is the newly-appointed head of Family Law with the Portsmouth firm Verisona Law.
At 33 she’s young to have reached the position, but she’s driven and has known exactly what she wanted to do since she was eight – become a ballet dancer or a lawyer and, more specifically, a naval lawyer. She admits the latter ambition was ‘a bit bizarre’ for an eight-year-old.
‘I was never, ever, going to be a dancer, so really I only had the one ambition. Perhaps it was strange for an eight-year-old, but it’s really all I ever wanted to do,’ she says as we chat in the conference room of her firm’s office in London Road, Waterlooville.
Her specialism means she sees people at their lowest ebb, when their marriages have fallen apart irretrievably and divorce is the only way to go.
She is a firm believer in pre-nuptial agreements which can ease the financial pain and which, she says, are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, having been used across Europe and the United States for many years.
‘It really is about time we got in line with the rest of the world. We need to catch up. People might think they’re only for celebrities, but they couldn’t be farther from the truth.’
Debbie cites the couple, about to marry, who sat down with her the other day, and raised the issue.
‘They said it felt really unromantic to be talking about such things, but as I said to the woman ‘‘the fact that your husband-to-be is willing to sign one is probably the most romantic thing in the world he could do. It means he wants you and nothing else’’.’
She moves on to the 70-year-old woman, with whom she is also dealing, who is about to embark on her second marriage. ‘She said she thought pre-nups were only for people who had millions.
She said she ‘‘only’’ had assets of several hundred thousands so, surely, it didn’t apply to her. I asked her if she was prepared to lose that as the result of a divorce and, of course, she said she wasn’t.
‘It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got hundreds of thousands or just £3,000 – if that’s all you’ve got you need to protect it.’
She says that although pre-nups here are still not legally binding they can strongly influence a court decision.
‘If everyone complies with all the legal aspects, like getting legal advice and giving full financial disclosure, a court will find it persuasive.’
Day in, day out, Debbie witnesses the heartache the breakdown of a marriage can bring and has firm beliefs about what should be done in the run-up to a wedding.
‘If you’re going to marry in church, you have to sit down with a priest before the ceremony. He or she will point out the religious importance of marriage and that it is a commitment for life.
‘So I think people should have to see a divorce lawyer at the same time.
‘People don’t realise and don’t want to consider that at the time they’re preparing for their wedding they should be thinking about divorce.
‘But these things happens all the time. Divorce can be difficult, lengthy and nasty and it pays to give it a bit of thought before you commit to someone.
‘If you can’t have that conversation with someone with whom you want to spend the rest of your life, who on earth can you have it with?’ she ponders.
Born in Middlesborough, Debbie was brought to Portsmouth by her parents when she was about four when her father, who had worked for ICI, got a job with IBM at Havant.
They settled at Widley and Debbie went to Morelands Primary School, Purbrook Park, and took her A-levels, which included law, at South Downs College. She still lives at Widley with her husband and two young children who are now at the same schools she attended.
She’s been married happily for 11 years, but does she practise what she preaches?
‘Do I have a pre-nup? Of course I don’t,’ she laughs.
Her fascination with law began almost as soon as she started to read.
‘As a child I had a voracious appetite for reading. I still do – anything and everything. I wanted to find out as much as I could about the world and still do.
‘I still read three or four books a week. I don’t watch telly.’
She started as a criminal lawyer but became increasingly fascinated with Family Law and made the switch in 2000. It was a move she has never regretted.
Can there ever be a positive side to dealing with people who are distraught, angry and scared?
‘Of course. You have the ability to change people’s lives for the good, or though they might not see it like that at the time.
‘I’ve kept in touch with people I guided through divorce 10 or 15 years ago and it’s so gratifying to see them happy now. The positive difference you can make to people’s lives is amazing.’
She has also begun to specialise in the growing sector of International Family Law, an area in which she has become increasingly fascinated. ‘You have to have a niche these days,’ she says.
This sector covers everything from the couple who are divorcing and have a property in Spain – ‘sounds simple enough doesn’t it, but that property can really complicate matters in countries where you can’t do transfers between spouses’ – to the two ex-pats living in Dubai.
Debbie’s representing the wife. ‘Dubai is governed by Sharia law because it’s a Muslim country so it’s a case of trying to get UK jurisdiction over that.
‘The husband could become a Muslim tomorrow and want a divorce under Sharia law in which case he would hold all the cards and the woman would get nothing.
‘I enjoy the challenge of dealing with cases like this, and fighting to get the fairest outcome for my client.’
Portsmouth and pensions
Debbie Bulmer’s odd ambition as a child was to become a lawyer specialising in divorce cases involving Royal Navy personnel and their ‘tricky’ pensions.
It was an ambition she would never have had if she had not moved to the Portsmouth area as a child. She says: ‘Naval and all armed forces pensions are very different to ordinary pensions where, in a divorce, all the assets go into the pot along with the pensions to be divided.’
Debbie continues: ‘They’re so different because they’re paid so differently. They can draw them down very early and this means the value of the pension pot is undervalued more often than not.’
This means the pension must be valued by an actuary ‘so you have a real value for the pension before you look at splitting it’.
‘Also, the age at which a woman can take her pension is different to a man, so if you just did a 50-50 split you do not get a 50-50 result.
‘A service pension is rigged so the value of it is inaccurate and it has to be adjusted according to the age of the parties and the lump sums they’ll be pulling out.
‘That’s why it’s vital that an expert values a pension so it can be apportioned to get equality. The navy will not do this for you.’ Debbie adds: ‘After a house, the pension is normally the second biggest asset. Sometimes it’s the biggest – I’ve had pensions worth three times the value of a property.
‘People overlook this, simply don’t think about it.But they must. It’s vital.’