IT IS not every day that a law student is so familiar with the material being taught that they could take their lecturer’s place.

Yet when Pippa Cunniff’s parents divorced while she was a student at Aberdeen University in the 1990s the case was so unusual in Scots law that it became a point of reference on her course.

Now, as head of family law at Edinburgh firm Gilson Gray, Ms Cunniff credits the case with sparking her interest in the practice area, although she admits that having her classmates pour over the details was “slightly embarrassing” at the time.

“The divorce happened when I was in my second year at university then the appeal decision came out when I was a trainee. It got mentioned because the decision made by the judge was quite unusual,” Ms Cunniff said.

“The principle in Scots law is that you work out matrimonial assets then divide them in two [in a divorce case].

“Even a 60/40 split was regarded as really unusual, but my mum received over 100 per cent of the net assets and, in theory, my father was left with a net deficit.

“It was very case specific because the judge didn’t believe a word my father said and made the decision appropriately.”

Having long overcome the embarrassment of hearing the case discussed in class, Ms Cunniff now says the experience “served her well” because it helped her get to grips with the human aspect of the law that is of particular importance in her chosen specialism.

“When you are training to be a lawyer there’s the technical legal stuff you have to learn and then there’s another angle which is to do with your ability to deal with people,” she explained.

“In the type of work I do that’s really important. Even in cases where there’s a huge amount of money it’s not dealing with the finances but dealing with the emotional stuff around that [really matters].

“In the particular circumstances I was in I had the advantage of being able to have a slightly different perspective on things and that helped me.

“It doesn’t make me a better lawyer but it probably got me to the point where I was heading more quickly than other people.”

Divorce is something we have all been hearing a lot about recently, what with the EU and UK struggling to find an amicable way of ending their 44-year union.

When they do, the implications are likely to go far beyond the national, with Ms Cunniff saying that Brexit could have “potentially really far-reaching consequences” for cross-border divorcing couples.

“A lot of family law legislation is governed by Europe but England and Scotland, for example, have entirely different rules,” she explained.

“Within Europe at the moment it's first come first served - if a divorce is raised in France first French law will prevail but if it’s raised in Scotland first then Scots law will prevail.

“[After Brexit] we will probably be back to having an argument about who takes jurisdiction and the courts will have to decide.”

While this will inevitably add to the costs involved in a divorce, Ms Cunniff believes it could also lead to some Scottish citizens getting less generous settlements than they can at the moment simply by filing papers in Scotland first.

Pointing out that Scotland is seen as leading the way in a number of areas of family law, particularly in relation to cohabitation and prenuptial agreements, she said that for many divorcing couples the 50/50 division of assets is also a bonus of the Scottish system.

“My view is that Scots law is very fair if you split up in the early part of a marriage,” she said.

“Where it’s potentially unfair is the very tight restriction on maintenance, which is awarded for just three years.

“This is perhaps less common now but if you are 57 and haven’t worked for 25 years [because you were bringing up a family] you will be left with 50 per cent of the assets but might have very different current earning capacity [from your spouse].”

Not that jurisdiction issues always create a headache, with Ms Cunniff, who is qualified in England as well as Scotland, noting that, “if you’re working for the economically stronger party you look at utilising the jurisdiction rules to maximise the advantage to your client”.

“There are complex technicalities in terms of which side of the Border is going to deal with your divorce and the final consequences are massive,” she added.