The Family Bar

In a nutshell

Family law barristers deal with an array of cases arising from marital, civil union or cohabitation breakdown and related issues concerning children. Simple cases are heard in the County Courts, while complex or high-value cases are listed in the Family Division of the High Court. Around half of divorcing couples have at least one child aged under 16, and together divorces affect nearly 160,000 children a year. Consequently, a huge amount of court time is allotted to divorce, separation, adoption, child residence and contact orders, financial provision and domestic violence.

Realities of the job

  • Financial cases and public and private law children’s work offer very different challenges.
  • Emotional resilience is required, as is a capacity for empathy, as the work involves asking clients for intimate details of their private life, and breaking devastating news to the emotionally fragile. Private law children’s cases can sometimes involve serious allegations between parents and require the input of child psychologists. Public law cases (care proceedings between local authorities and parents) invariably include detailed and potentially distressing medical evidence or abuse.
  • For many clients, involvement with the courts is out of the ordinary and they will rely heavily on their barrister to guide them through the process. The law can never fix emotional problems relating to marital breakdown or child issues, but it can pacify a situation.
  • The job calls for communication, tact and maturity. Cases have a significant impact on the lives they involve, so finding the most appropriate course of action for each client is important. The best advocates are those who can differentiate between a case and client requiring a bullish approach and those crying out for settlement and concessions to be made.
  • Where possible, mediation is used to resolve disputes in a more efficient and less unsettling fashion.
  • Teamwork is crucial. As the barrister is the link between the client, the judge, solicitors and social workers, it is important to win the trust and confidence of all parties.
  • The legislation affecting this area is comprehensive, and there’s a large body of case law. Keeping abreast of developments is necessary because the job is more about negotiating general principles than adhering strictly to precedents.
  • Finance-oriented barristers need an understanding of pensions and shares and a good grounding in the basics of trusts and property.

Current issues

October 2020

  • Legal aid cuts are hitting the Family Bar hard, with funding removed from a majority of cases. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came under fire from the Family Law Bar Association in a 2015 paper alleging that the Act does not properly safeguard the most vulnerable, including children.
  • In addition to receiving work from solicitors, several barristers also operate a ‘direct access’ practice, meaning clients can cut out the middleman by taking their cases directly to barristers without going through a solicitor. Although clients don’t have to pay solicitors’ fees, some barristers charge more for direct access cases given the extra legwork it involves. Stephen Lyon, barrister at family law set 4 Paper Buildings, told us: “Direct access is proving to be a very popular way of resolving disputes, as it means clients and barristers can build a direct relationship, rather than having a solicitor – acting as intermediary – forming the relationship on their behalf.”
  • 2019 saw one of the highest-profile divorces to date, between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and wife MacKenzie Scott. Scott was awarded 25% of the previously jointly-held Amazon stock, parachuting her to third place in a list of the wealthiest women in the world. She has quickly set to work donating large amounts to charity.
  • As the number of cohabiting couples rises, divorce rates have been on the decline: there were 50,000 fewer divorces in 2017 than the most recent peak year, 2003. The government has drafted legislation to allow for 'no-fault' divorces after years of petitions to do so, though they're still unlikely to be possible until autumn 2021.
  • Consultations are underway to update the UK’s surrogacy laws, which have remained largely unchanged since the 1990s. Proposed changes include the creation of a ‘new surrogacy pathway’ that would recognise the intended parents as the child’s legal parents from the point of birth.

Some tips

  • The Family Bar is quite small and competition for pupillage is intense. Think about how you can evidence your interest in family law.
  • Younger pupils might find it daunting to advise on mortgages, marriages and children when they’ve never experienced any of these things personally. Those embarking on a second career, or who have delayed a year or two and acquired other life experiences, have a distinct advantage.
  • Check a set's work orientation before applying for pupillage; some will specialise in a specific area like the financial aspects of divorce.