In a nutshell
Lawyers are involved with almost every aspect of family life, from the legal mechanics and complications of marriage and civil partnerships to divorce, disputes between cohabitants, inheritance disputes between family members, prenuptial and cohabitation agreements and all matters relating to children. Whether working in a general high-street practice with a large caseload of legally aided work, or for a specialist practice dealing with big-money divorces, complex child custody cases or international matters, family solicitors are in court a good deal and are fully occupied back in the office.
There is effectively a division between child law and matrimonial law, with many practitioners devoting themselves exclusively to one or the other; others plant a foot in each. Unfortunately, family law is an area which has been seriously affected by legal aid cuts.
What lawyers do
- Interview and advise clients on prenuptial agreements, cohabitation arrangements, divorce and the financial implications of divorce. This can involve issues like inheritance and wills, conveyancing, welfare benefits, company law, tax and trusts, pensions and even judicial review.
- Prepare the client’s case for divorce and settlement hearings, including organising witnesses and providing summaries of assets/finances, which will require dealing with accountants and financial and pensions advisers.
- Attend conferences with barristers.
- Represent clients in hearings or brief barristers to do so.
- Negotiate settlements and associated financial terms.
- In private cases: interview and advise clients on the implications of divorce with regard to child contact and residence. In some instances this will result in court action. Deal with disputes between parents or other family members over the residence of, and contact with, children.
- In public cases: represent local authorities, parents, children’s guardians or children themselves on matters such as children’s care proceedings or abuse in care claims. Social workers, probation officers, psychologists and medical professionals will also be involved in cases.
Realities of the job
- When it comes to relationships and families, no two sets of circumstances will ever be the same. You will encounter a real mix of clients, some at a joyful moment in their lives, others facing deeply traumatic times. A good family law practitioner combines the empathetic, sensitive qualities of a counsellor with the clarity of thought and commercial acumen of a lawyer. You need to remain detached to achieve the result your clients need.
- Tough negotiating skills and a strong nerve are vital as your work has immediate and practical consequences. The prospect of telling a client that they’ve lost a custody battle does much to sharpen the mind.
- A pragmatic and real-world outlook is useful, however you’ll also need to spend time keeping abreast of legal developments.
- On publicly funded matters you’ll face your share of bureaucracy, and it certainly won’t make you rich.
- Matrimonial law is strongly affected by court decisions, which can sometimes take a surprising turn.
- Advocacy is plentiful.
- The number of divorces continues to fall. The most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (covering 2015) show a 9.1% decrease in divorces of opposite sex couples compared to the previous year; the divorce rate was highest among men and women aged 40 to 44.
- The high-profile Cooper-Hohn v Hohn case – involving the divorce of hedge fund billionaire Sir Chris Hohn and his wife Jamie Cooper – was settled in 2014. The court decided against equitable distribution, and in favour of the 'special contribution' argument made by Chris Hohn's lawyers, a principle which has been occasionally employed in divorce cases involving partners with high incomes. Jamie Cooper didn't get the amount she originally wanted, but was awarded £337 million in what was classed as the biggest divorce settlement ever seen in a British court.
- There has been an increase in the popularity of prenuptial agreements following the Radmacher v Granatino divorce case. In 2014, the Law Commission recommended that prenups should be legally binding in divorce settlements, but only after the needs of the separating couple and any children have been taken into account.
- There has been an increase in the number of cases involving allegations of 'material non-disclosure.' Helen Roocroft recently sought to renegotiate a previously agreed separation settlement after discovering that her recently deceased civil partner, property mogul Carol Ann Ainscow, might have made fraudulent claims about her wealth. The case followed on from the successful appeals by Alison Sharland and Varsha Gohil, whose husbands were found to be dishonest in their disclosure of wealth during their respective divorce settlements.
- Same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales in March 2014; the first divorces between same-sex couples took place in 2015, when 22 couples decided to go their separate ways.
- Changes are likely to be made to the way future family judges are trained following the murder of Ellie Butler by her father. Six-year-old Ellie had been returned to her birth parents by a family judge despite concerns raised about her safety. There have also been calls to open up family courts to public scrutiny as a result of the case.
- The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a number of significant family justice reforms, aimed at improving services for vulnerable children, giving better support for children whose parents are separating, and introducing a new system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities.
- Family law no longer qualifies for legal aid, except in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. Family law organisation Resolution points to two marked trends since 2012's Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act: there has been a decrease in the number of agreements reached after mediation, and a significant increase in the number of litigants without representation. Elsewhere, the charity Rights of Women has successfully challenged the government’s domestic violence evidence test for legal aid, making it easier for sufferers of domestic abuse to afford access to justice.
- In all types of civil family law cases mediation is being strongly encouraged.
- Family law is expected to experience some changes in light of Britain's impending exit from the EU. Many of the laws applying to international and cross-border family disputes have come through EU legislation, and it is unclear what will replace them. Prominent practitioners in the field predict that EU laws will be imported for issues like divorce and child maintenance. There are also non-European fallbacks available in areas such as child abduction.
- In 2017 judges at the European Court of Justice gathered to rule on whether the British government breached the family rights of a British-Spanish citizen seeking to have her Algerian husband live with her in the UK. Freedom of movement among those with dual citizenship (and their family members) is expected to undergo scrutiny as the relationship between the UK and the EU changes over the coming years.
- The residency status of children who are EU nationals is another concern following the vote for Brexit. There are an estimated 588,000 such children living in England, and over half were born in Britain; however, their right to remain in the UK after Brexit is still unclear.