Family law: area of practice (barristers)

Family law is intellectually challenging but with a people side, says Amy Kisser from QEB.

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Taking family law out of the public courtroom and into a private arena has meant a drive towards mediation and arbitration

Family law is a large area of practice. It has two main facets: (1) financial consequences of relationship breakdowns (mainly after divorce), and (2) children cases, both private (focusing on how the child will divide their time between their parents) and public (concerning children who might be taken into care by the state). Many family law barristers tend to specialise in one of these areas.

You don’t really get ‘a typical case’ in family law because families are infinitely varied. Some cases don’t go to court and end quickly if the parties can reach an agreement. If a case does go to court it can last anything from six months to two years. Care cases operate on a stricter timetable. Clients come from all walks of life. They can be anyone from homemakers to businessmen to celebrities.

What is the working environment like in family law?

Barristers in family law tend to work on a lot of different cases at any one time, but you dip in and out of cases for conferences and court hearings, while solicitors work on cases as they go along. I currently have about 50 cases but I’m only attending one hearing in each every couple of months.

Junior family barristers spend around 70 per cent of their time in court and 30 per cent in chambers. Senior barristers tend to have a more even split, as they have fewer but more complex cases. Family law work can require long hours; however, as a general rule, most people seem to choose to work either evenings or weekends – it’s a relatively bad week if you have to do both.

One of the best elements of this area of practice is helping people through a difficult time in their lives and feeling like you’re making a difference. Financial cases also touch on lots of different areas of law – for example, they may involve international, company and tax law aspects. It’s intellectually challenging but with a people side. The other great thing about family law is that you are looking forward in order to try to find a solution for the future, whereas in most other areas of law you are looking at wrongs committed in the past.

Family law can be quite stressful for the same reasons it’s great: dealing with people going through a difficult time means you have to be emotionally resilient. Cases can come in last minute, particularly when you are junior, which can make it hard to plan things for your spare time.

How is the family Bar changing?

There is now a single Family Court in England and Wales, which has unified the previous disparate family court tiers into a single structure (albeit with different levels of judge). Under this system, family cases are tried all over the country in courts in the location of where people live. The more complex cases can sometimes go to the High Court.

Taking family law out of the public courtroom and into a private arena has meant a drive towards mediation and arbitration. Arbitration is attractive for clients as it is held in private. Whereas there has been a recent drive towards holding family cases in public, particularly opening up family courts to the press so that people can see how family law works. There has been particular emphasis on letting the press into care cases as recent public opinion is that local authorities should be accountable for the decisions they make.

Some cases that students should be aware of are Radmacher v. Granatino regarding prenuptial agreements, Prest v. Petrodel Resources regarding the treatment of companies in family cases, and Gohil and Sharland , focusing on the consequences of when someone fails to disclose their assets in their divorce.

Is family law recession-proof?

The most obvious impact of the recent recession has been the government’s drive to cut legal aid and public funding. This has had a real knock-on effect for family law; there used to be public funding for divorce, which has now been almost completely removed. I think that this will affect the size of the family Bar going forward. However, there will unfortunately always be family breakdowns so there will always be family cases.

What can you expect as a pupil in family law?

Pupils generally work from 8.45 am to 6.15 pm, although they may sometimes have to work a bit later. Pupils follow supervisors and observe their cases but most chambers also make sure that they get to see the junior work that they will soon be doing themselves.

In the second six, when pupils are doing their own cases, they generally do basic applications, non-molestation injunctions, first appointments and FDRs (these are earlier hearings in financial cases), small financial cases and basic children hearings. Pupils will have their own cases very early on in their second six months, which is unlike many other areas of law.

AMY KISSER is a barrister at QEB. She studied a bachelors and masters in law at the University of Oxford and was called to the Bar in 2009.

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