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 separation. 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 custody and residence. In some instances this will result in court action. Deal with disputes between parents or other family members over care 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 and unflappable 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.
- The chances to do advocacy are more plentiful than in many areas of law.
- Parting ways with your significant other may have just got a whole lot easier. Moving away from the requirement of proving one of five fault-based claims, the ‘blame game’ could come to an end following the introduction of the 2019 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill. The new legislation, which gained Royal Assent in June 2020, legalised the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce (likely to become possible in autumn 2021), introduced an option for a joint divorce petition, and allowed for a 26-week notice period in place of the current two or five-year separation. The government will also review the £550 court fee for the divorce application with the implementation of an online divorce system, cutting the cost of administration for the courts.
- People can now apply for divorce and probate online, which is said to have made the process more efficient and decreased the number of errors. The average time it takes for a digital divorce application is just over 20 weeks, but paper-based or ‘traditional’ applications take nearly 67 weeks according to law firm Boodle Hatfield. Government statistics indicate that about 40% of divorces applications were made digitally.
- The jury's out on the effect of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown on divorce rates in the UK. Co-op Legal Services saw a 42% increase in divorce queries between March and May compared to 2019; on the other hand, a YouGov poll that asked over 1,000 UK divorcees whether they would go ahead with a divorce during the pandemic found that 28% of respondents would probably refrain from doing so.
- According to the Office for National Statistics, the divorce rate among opposite-sex couples fell to its lowest rate in 46 years in 2018 – a decrease of more than 10% compared with the previous year. The drop is even more dramatic when you consider a backlog in processing divorces accounts for a chunk of the 2018 figures. Divorcing couples had been married for an average 12 and a half years when they finalised their separation; the most commonly cited ground was 'unreasonable behaviour'.
- Dating apps are of course all the rage, but there's now also a divorce app operating in the UK. Amicable, which launched in 2016, was created by family counsellor Kate Daly and IT consultant Pip Wilson; it's not intended to replace the services of divorce lawyers, but to help separating couples manage childcare and other priorities.
- In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that civil partnerships between heterosexual couples were legal, meaning the option is now available to all couples.
- A High Court judge had previously ruled that Islamic marriages can be recognised as a marriage within English law in a case where Nasreen Akhter, a solicitor, petitioned for divorce. This is something that was previously an issue for the large proportion of Muslim women whose marriages were 'nikah-only' rather than being recognised by a civil ceremony. In 2020, however, the Appeals Court ruled that such ceremonies were not valid legal arrangements in the UK, overturning the previous decision. Lawyers have predicted that legislation to address this issue is likely to follow.
- The ‘call for evidence’ project, initiated by the government in the summer of 2019, established an expert panel to gather evidence from individuals and organisations on their experiences of how the family courts protect them and their children in private family law proceedings. The evidence gathering spanned three months, concluding on 26 August. As well as shining a spotlight on child safety, health and wellbeing in the current system, the project will consider the impact of continued contact with historically abusive parents.
- The number of teenagers in care has risen by 25% in four years, according to the latest Stability Index. The increase, driven by a growing number of teenagers (with more complex and expensive needs) in the system is threatening its overall stability. Issues that are most commonly flagged up by social workers include child sexual exploitation (now six times more likely than five years ago) and trafficking (a staggering 12 times more likely) as well as drug misuse, involvement in gangs and going missing from home. Findings within the Stability Index report show that, over a three-year period, more than half of children in care moved home once or more and one in ten moved four or more times, reflecting the instability inherent to the lives of children in the care system.
- 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. Resolution has been pushing for the planned review of legal aid to take place, but the Justice Minister decided to postpone the review in March 2018. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the MOJ announced it was investing £3 million in support of people representing themselves in court, including in family courts.