What is family law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

Last updated: 25 Aug 2023, 09:52

Family law is an advocacy-heavy area that includes everything from financial dispute resolution to child protection.

A picture of an upset and unhappy couple sat at opposite ends of a sofa, symbolising divorce

The best part of the job is supporting people through difficult times – feelings may be running very high and the issues and facts difficult. Of course, the job can be difficult for family barristers when the court disagrees with the outcome that the client wants. Our explainer on family law at the Bar was written by Aimee Fox, barrister at 3PB .

She completed a Diplome d’Etudes Françaises at Université Lyon III , before undertaking an LLB Law with French at Queen’s University, Belfast. She also completed an LLM in European Community Law at the College of Europe in Bruges. Aimee undertook the BVC at the Inns of Court School of Law

Meet Aimee Fox, barrister at 3PB

A black and white headshot of Aimee Fox, set against a black background

What is family law at the Bar?

Family law includes the financial side of divorce which may become more complex in proportion to the overall wealth of the divorcing couple. It also includes disputes about with whom children should live and when they should spend time with the other parent post-separation; there can be tricky cases in this area where serious allegations have been made, the children’s needs are complex or international elements are introduced. The third area of practice is child protection or public law, which is where children can be taken into the care of a local authority for their safety: in this area the court’s decision can be devastating. For those who can master the wide range of skills required to not only cope but to thrive in this area of practice, it can be a very fulfilling career.

Depending on the type of work offered by chambers in the early years some barristers will practise in all three areas, but it is common to see barristers specialising in one or two areas after a few years.

What do family barristers do?

There is no typical case in family law but similar issues can arise in different permutations. In child protection, the family court will often deal with cases involving substance abuse and domestic violence. Family barristers will often have a large number of cases. Importantly, although these cases may be ongoing for months or even more than a year, barristers will usually only be involved when there is a hearing or specific advice is required. Unexpected developments in cases can occur at the last minute and lots of family barristers will do some work at the weekend and in the evenings.

Court commitments can vary but junior family barristers will often attend court numerous times per week. Covid-19 has shown that many short hearings can be dealt with well on video and it may be the case that this continues although to what extent remains unclear. When not in court, time is spent in chambers preparing cases but also having conferences with clients or preparing paperwork for hearings. Working hours can be unpredictable. Most family barristers will have some control over their diaries meaning they can book time out to prepare cases and during that time they do not attend court. However, lots of family barristers will do some work at the weekend and in the evenings. It is not a typical 9.00 am to 5.00 pm job.

What is life like as a family law pupil?

Pupils are likely to assist their supervisor or other members of chambers with case preparation and will also attend court with them. They may be asked to complete legal research or prepare advice on a particular issue. In their second six, pupils can expect to be in court regularly conducting their own cases. In my chambers, careful thought is given to ensure pupils are not overwhelmed by the pressures of starting out in practice.

What skills do you need to be a family law barrister?

Family barristers need to be able to empathise and provide support for clients who are going through a difficult time. It helps for them to have the the capacity to process and analyse large volumes of information quickly and to work under pressure. The nature of family law means that excellent advocacy skills are essential.

Types of law practised within family law

  • Knowledge of other areas of law can assist when working on financial remedy cases such as property, trusts and insolvency.

How much can I earn as a family law pupil?

You will likely shadow a number of different members of chambers alongside your pupil supervisor and may later specialise in one area of law (generally one of chambers’ specialties) once you have been in practice for some time. As such it can be tricky to nail down exact earnings for early tenants, but you can take a look at our overview of How much you can earn as a pupil barrister to get a general idea of how much each chambers offers to pupils. Sets in the more commercially orientated areas tend to offer between £40,000 and £75,000 for 12 months but there is a huge variation by practice area.

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