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 aims to legalise the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce; introduce an option for a joint divorce petition; and allow 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.
- According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 101,669 opposite-sex divorces in England and Wales in 2017: 4.9% fewer than in 2016. The divorce rate was highest among men aged 45 to 49 years and women aged 40 to 44 years. 2017 also saw divorce rates for same-sex couples rise nearly three-fold, with 338 cases compared to 112 in 2016.
- In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that civil partnerships between heterosexual couples were legal, meaning that the option is now available to all couples.
- In addition a High Court judge also ruled that Islamic marriages can be recognised as a marriage within English law. This came in a case where Nasreen Akhter, a solicitor, petitioned for divorce. Her husband, Mohammed Shabaz Khan argued that their marriage was only recognised by Shari'a law, and therefore the divorce should be blocked. The fact that this argument failed allowed Akhter to make the normal financial claims involved in a 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.
- With uncertainty continuing to swirl around the Brexit process, family lawyers have guessed at various possibilities if the UK leaves without an agreement. Boutique firm Family Law Partners predicts that in cases such as child abductions, the Hague Conventions will continue to apply between the UK and EU states. However, EU family law instruments based on mutual recognition principles won’t apply across the new borders between the EU and UK.
- The Hague Child Abduction Convention is central to a fascinating cross-border family law matter involving the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. In a case that was heard at first in the London Family Court Division of the High Court, Princess Haya requested a forced marriage protection order for one of her children alongside a non-molestation order and a wardship order against the Sheikh. Luckily for the Princess, Dubai is not a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention and so the case is to be heard under English law. If the Sheik had been applying for the return of a child to a country which was signed up to the Convention, he could have called on legal aid funding despite his enormous personal wealth.
- 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 26th 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 21% over five years according to the 2019 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.