FOR a husband and wife, a marital breakup can mean trauma, depression and an emotional wrench; to children it brings confusion and a river of tears. But to lawyers, especially in Hong Kong, a pending divorce can gleam with the lucrative promise of a gold mine. Divorce is often one of the most draining experiences in a person's life, but ever greater numbers of couples are marching into solicitors' offices to legalise their split. In 1992, 5,650 Hong Kong couples decided they could no longer stand being married and obtained a divorce. Last year the figure rose to 7,454 and in the first six months of this year, more than 4,000 couples had already received their divorce papers. But the cost of slicing marriage bonds in Hong Kong can easily exceed the bill for the happy festivities which tied the knot in the first place. One prominent Hong Kong professional, smarting from divorce legal charges which reached six figures, recalled a dinner conversation with a local judge: 'He said: 'Let me tell you: number one - don't get divorced in Hong Kong. And number two - don't hire a lawyer'.' Solicitor Geoffrey Booth, whose firm runs a substantial matrimony department, said there could be 'a hell of a variation' in legal fees from case to case. 'We've come across cases where clients are being charged rates of $5,000 an hour. For private work, where the individual is meeting the expense, it's daunting,' he said. Charging rates vary from the Legal Aid scale, which is low, to millions of dollars in substantial divorces. Chairman of the Hong Kong Law Society's Family Law Committee, divorce solicitor Bebe Chu Pui-ying (not one of the lawyers complained about), warned of bills which could devastate a family, leaving little cash to divide among the newly-divorced couple and their children. 'A long case can take two to three years and it can get very, very expensive,' Ms Chu said. 'I've even heard of cases where the total divorce costs are over $10 million. That's solicitors' fees, barristers' costs and court fees. The cost of litigation in Hong Kong is very high. The reason people feel it more in divorce cases is because it comes out of their own pockets. In most [other] litigation, a company pays.' Most solicitors' firms handle divorce proceedings but a handful have become specialists in the field, drawing much of their fees from broken marriages. Tales of dubious dealing and startling six-figure invoices are regularly swapped among the territory's new divorcees. A former Hong Kong woman who left the territory after instigating divorce proceedings against her husband told of her high-flying lawyer's unsolicited request to visit her at her overseas home. The woman's husband said she had initially turned down the request, telling the lawyer she was busy organising her new life and caring for her children. The solicitor replied that he was visiting another country 'in the vicinity' and insisted on a meeting to iron out aspects of her case. The pair met for a morning discussion, lunched at the wife's expense and she offered to show him the sights of her home city before his plane departed. When the husband and wife discussed the visit later, it was apparent 'nothing new' had been raised during the meeting, although the solicitor had taken copious notes throughout. But soon after the puzzling visit came the shock. The solicitor billed her for the whole day as attending a client meeting. The woman's Hong Kong-based husband, faced with a $163,000 bill for his wife's legal expenses, is still fuming at the lawyer's charge for '42 consultations with counsel on an undefended divorce'. Costs have got out of hand and people are lining their pockets,' he said. One top barrister whose marriage was on the rocks, the professional said, was considering retaining 'the most expensive and avaricious solicitor in town'. Not, he explained, so the barrister could use the solicitor during the divorce, but to prevent his wife from hiring him. When Hong Kong couples spend big bucks to battle over a divorce settlement, they rarely argue over custody of the children or over the separation itself. Warring couples run up their biggest bills in a tug-of-war for the cash, occasionally egged on by their lawyers. A doctor, who has received solicitors' bills he estimates at hundreds of thousands of dollars, said the cost and complexity of divorce soared after lawyers became involved. 'Initially when we had to file divorce papers, I wrote an agreement out with my wife, we talked and everything seemed fine,' he said. 'Then one of my wife's friends said [to her]: 'You really should have your own solicitor'.' Letters flew between countries, agreements were added and changed and the divorce was finally sealed two years later. 'The final agreement we reached, after my wife's solicitor was involved, was exactly the same as we'd agreed before the solicitor got involved - except we had a bill for $200,000,' the doctor said. Mr Booth said he had heard a series of complaints about 'certain solicitors and the way they do business . . . I think most people would acknowledge it does happen here,' he said. 'The professional who is advising [the couple] is in a position of great responsibility. The solicitor has a duty to give them the right advice - to steer them into calmer waters rather than troubled waters. There's unfortunately a school of thought which says the best way of litigating is to take a very aggressive stance.' Family Law Association founding member Pam Baker said marital bitterness could cost a family dearly. 'I have seen cases both here and in England where there wasn't a penny left for either side or their children,' Ms Baker said. 'There are times when it's very difficult to tell them not to fight. But you can do it by saying: 'do you want all this money to go to me or do you want to keep some of it for yourself and the children?' 'If you can't, what you've got is a sort of horrible dependence of the client on the lawyer. You get the calls in the middle of the night, the interviews which go on forever - and all the time the meter is running.' Family law specialist at Hong Kong University, Dr Athena Liu Nga-chee, said lawyers were duty-bound to find a compromise between the sparring couple and try to settle the divorce out of court. 'Every now and then the judges will come out and say the parties involved are supposed to behave reasonably and the solicitors likewise,' Dr Liu said. 'People are not aware of the costs sky-rocketing each time they ask their solicitor to do something, and there are those who are shocked at the end of the day when they see the bill.' MS CHU acknowledged there were 'black sheep in any profession', but knew of few people who would file a formal complaint with the society. 'I'm not saying every solicitor is perfect. There are those who do things not to the letter of the law,' she said. 'When the bill comes [the client] may get a shock, but they have already said they'll pay. Every client should be aware before they do anything, to ask the solicitor whether he's going to charge [for each action] and how much he's going to charge. 'You have to remember that it comes out of family assets. I keep telling my clients this but they tend to become very emotional in a traumatic case and at that particular moment, they don't care who pays.' Solicitors in a divorce case are bound to sign a reconciliation certificate, saying they have discussed reconciliation possibilities with their client, but the client has declined marriage counselling. Lawyers should also discourage emotional clients from unnecessary and expensive legal action, Ms Chu said. 'My advice is to ask for interim bills, because often people say they don't have to pay their solicitor until the end of the case, then they get hit with a million-dollar bill.' Costs soar when clients take the case to court and ask for leading barristers or Queen's Counsel to represent their side. A leading counsel could charge from $150,000 to $300,000 for the first day in court and $25,000 to $50,000 for each following day. Family Court judge David Gill said divorcing couples should weigh up the anticipated legal bill against the value of the property they're slicing up: 'The cost of legal services in Hong Kong is very high compared to many places in the Western world, and market forces dictate the level of fees.' Couples could choose to file a divorce themselves, without involving solicitors, and pay less than $10,000, he said. 'The filing of a divorce itself is a very straightforward exercise . . . but it's the ancillary relief matters, maintenance and so on, which can run up the bills. If the parties, even before they go to their solicitors, can settle the matter and present the solicitors with a fait accompli, the bill will doubtlessly be less.' Judge Gill said he had no complaints about the ethics of Hong Kong's divorce solicitors. But Hong Kong's divorcing couples who qualify under an assets and income test could vie for their share of the family assets in court without breaking the bank. Legal Aid solicitors will fight their cases, and the costs will be wholly or partly absorbed by the department's budget.