National Centre for Domestic Violence

There is a very concerning piece abut the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) on Buzzfeed :

A Major UK Domestic Violence Organisation Faces Accusations Of Failing Victims And Taking Inappropriate Payments

Now I don’t know much about Buzzfeed, so I can’t say how reliable this is, but if accurate it is really rather worrying. The gist of what Buzzfeed claim is that NCDV has got itself mixed up in a referral fee scandal involving potentially 20 firms of solicitors – one of whom has already been sanctioned, the rest under investigation. It claims that NCDV allows the misleading impression to be created that it is a charity when it is not, and that it inappropriately puffs itself by listing patrons and supporters, in that some were unaware of the use to which their names or quotes were being put, or that they were unaware NCDV has not held charitable status since 2011 (“patrons” is apparently a term that has been deleted since Buzzfeed flagged it).

Nor do I know a great deal about NCDV, other than that from time to time I meet a client who has been referred to them, perhaps by Women’s Aid, and who has been told they can’t help. I had a client not so long ago who no doubt Women’s Aid assumed would be properly supported by their referral in connection with allegations of very worrying but so-far-not-physical harassing behaviour – but she was sent away with the understanding that she could not get an injunction because there had been no violence in the preceding 10 days. Of course this is no part of the legal criteria for an injunction under part IV of the Family Law Act 1996, and insofar as this was the impression she was left with – that the law doesn’t protect people in her situation – it was wrong. It does. She was quite entitled to an injunction and I helped her draft the application so she could go and seek the injunction in person (I was in court on another matter the following day and it couldn’t wait, otherwise I’d have gone myself). It was granted, no thanks to the agency she’d turned to for help. When I asked twitter about this phenomenon others reported having clients who had been told the same, and had potentially been left unprotected when a legal remedy existed. And at least one woman victim confirmed she’d been told the same.

At the time, that prompted me to have a chugg around their site to see what I could find out about NCDV because I was pretty narked at their treatment of my client. But I confess I found their website confusing and couldn’t even get to the bottom of whether or not they were a charity before having to turn my attention to something else – and it passed down my to do list into oblivion, until this Buzzfeed article bumped it up again. It looks as if in the meantime Buzzfeed have been on a similar mission, but have been rather more thorough going than I had time to be.

The NCDV website is a curious beast. It sets out a history of NCDV that is simultaneously detailed and uninformative on the key points (such as legal status and source of funding). It is wordily opaque, On the (undated) history page it says

Clients are not charged for the service. NCDV staff take an initial statement: clients who qualify for legal aid are referred to a local firm; those that don’t get free help from the centre itself. It runs on a shoestring, heavily reliant on volunteers and capping staff salaries at £18,000 a year.

But this is immediately followed by a reference to the CEO Steve Connor being about to qualify as a barrister “in the summer”. Elsewhere the website has Connor completing his BVC in 2007 so it appears that at least some of the information on this page has not been refreshed for many years – so it is very unclear whether the quote above can be relied upon as current. Confusingly, in a post dated December 2016, it is reported that Steve Connor is stepping down as CEO and becoming NCDV Chair “as the organisation restructures to face today’s challenges”. In his place a new CEO was appointed (though the poor old replacement hasn’t made it to the History page and the “our team” page is showing a 404 error today). That post says :

With growing numbers of referrals from the police and other agencies nationally and the ongoing obstacles and threats to access to justice for those needing to protect themselves and their families, NCDV is restructuring to ensure that they can provide the best possible service to all of those seeking help regardless of their ability to pay.

Mark Groves will take over as CEO bringing 8 years of coalface experience in helping and supporting victims. As Head of Operations Mark has managed the organisation on a day to day basis. His vision is to ensure a joined up service across the whole country so that there is a streamlined referral and support service for anyone suffering domestic abuse irrespective of means or postcode. Dr Connor confirmed “ With the diversity of service we now provide it makes sense to put in place a new top management structure. My position will change to one of Non-Executive Chairman guiding NCDV within the core principals we have always had in place.

I don’t know what that means in practice – and according to Buzzfeed and published Companies House data it has been some years since the status of the organisation moved from charitable to private limited company, so this is apparently a further restructuring. Anyway, so far so confusing.

Something that has appeared, I think, since I last looked is a news item about an award won by the NCDV, for its online referral system “referral direct”. Winning an award from the “Social Care Awards 2017” sounds impressive, as does the branded “Referral Direct”, but it is in reality just a basic web form that asks half a dozen questions, and the associated app asks about three (I checked). That said, it appears to be useful and has attracted 400 odd five star reviews from police officers and agencies who have used it, so clearly an important service is being provided efficiently here in many cases. But it is hardly a revolutionary use of technology. For those compulsive googleitis like me, it can easily be established that the award that NCDV has won is from a US based commercial online magazine called Global Health and Pharma, which seems to run about twenty different awards for “all aspects of the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors“, that organisations can self nominate for. It claims a readership of under 5,000 a month. Personally I’d leave that one off my website, but I guess most visitors don’t go beyond “award winning platform”… The overall impression is that everything and the kitchen sink is stuck on this site but it is never weeded. As Buzzfeed have picked up this seems to include testimonials.

The website also confirms that NCDV do indeed operate to criteria that require an incident in the last 10 days, although the reports from rejected victims don’t entirely match with the slightly more nuanced wording on their site. This criterion seems to me to be plainly funding driven as it is likely to be a crude means of catching and progressing only those applications which have a pretty good chance of passing the merits test for the purposes of emergency funding, and of excluding those that are likely to represent work for no money – at any rate I can’t think of any other good reason for it. The FAQs explain it like this :

…time is an issue at law. To make an emergency application there will usually need to be a recent use or threat of violence within, at the most, the last seven days (this may be different if, for example, someone has been in hospital for several weeks prior to making an application or there have been bail conditions for the last month).

This means that an application for an emergency injunction, which is asking the Judge to exercise their ‘emergency powers’, must be made as soon as possible. The law does not say ‘as soon as conveniently possible’ because this is inconsistent with an emergency. Of course, the benefits of obtaining an injunction sooner or later are self-explanatory – you have a stronger case and legal protection much quicker than otherwise.

I think the suggestion that time is an issue “at law” is misleading. There is a general discretion and yes, recency will be relevant to the assessment of risk and therefore the justification for an order. But there is no specific statutory criteria, test or limitation referable to time. And the law doesn’t say you are barred from applying. At its highest a delay reduces your chances of success. I think it is wrong that NCDV don’t acknowledge this is simply their own proxy for a merits test because it is at least sometimes interpreted either by their volunteer advisers or the end victim (or both) as being a bar.

Confusingly, having referred to 7 days in the above FAQ, they then go on immediately to answer a question about what one should do if it has been more than ten days since the most recent incident :

This is sometimes not a problem and there may be other reasons that would still warrant an emergency injunction application.

The most common reasons are when someone has been in hospital, or the abuser is has been serving a prison sentence or released with bail conditions following an arrest. When there has been a significant period of time since the last incident, there are two options.

First, NCDV could draft a warning letter for you, requesting the abuser to stop their unacceptable behaviour immediately.

Secondly, NCDV could help you make an ‘on notice’ application for an injunction. This is exactly the same as an emergency injunction except for the procedure used. Whereas you are able to obtain an emergency injunction on the same day you first go to court, without the abuser knowing anything at all, an on notice application means being given a future court date when the injunction application will be heard with both yourself and the abuser present. The injunction would have the same powers attached to it and the police could arrest immediately on breach.

The issue here is that whilst NCDV correctly identify that it may be more difficult to secure a without notice injunction if there hasn’t been a recent incident, the circumstances in which an injunction may still be justified are broader than suggested (not least that it may take some days to make the decision or to safely manage to contact an agency, or a victim may have successfully hidden for a period). And more importantly, anecdotal reports of what happens on the ground don’t match this FAQ answer – victims aren’t being given a warning letter or helped to make an on notice application. They are being told that NCDV can’t help. So much for them helping all comers. That may not happen in all or even many cases falling foul of the 7 / 10 day rule, but a handful is too many for me.

As I understand the situation in light of the Buzzfeed article (and the fact that they use mainly mckenzie friend law students to do their work and are not a regulated provider of legal services), NCDV don’t actually hold legal aid certificates themselves but are paid for the preparation of witness statements under the legal aid certificates of the solicitors to whom they refer clients. I guess that it is unattractive to them to “waste time” undertaking work for a client who may ultimately not secure legal aid and where that work may ultimately not be remunerated. Don’t forget too, that whilst training, insuring and managing volunteers is not cost neutral, these are volunteers whose services are being charged out for – so each client who is helped for free but who can’t secure legal aid represents a potential lost profit to the business. There is nothing wrong with operating a business for profit of course – I do, and solicitors firms do so too. But there of course clients know this. The issue with NCDVs arrangement with at least one solicitors firm is that nobody told the client NCDV were making 170 quid out of them.

The NCDV website says clearly that a witness statement is drafted before the solicitor referral is made (and therefore before legal aid is granted), which raises a question at least as to whether or not the use of legal aid to reimburse for work carried out prior to the grant of a certificate is a proper use of those funds (I don’t know the answer from a professional conduct point of view as I’m no expert on the Solicitors’ Code of Conduct, I merely raise it). But it certainly makes it look more like referral fee than a genuine fee for the work done and this seems to be one of the areas where NCDV fell down in the case where a solicitors firm was sanctioned. Buzzfeed say other investigations are ongoing and although we don’t know if they raise similar issues, it does seem likely, given the information on the NCDV site : In the example that is on the SRA website the record shows that the work was carried out BEFORE referral, and that the clients were not told that NCDV would receive a fee (It’s not clear from the published information whether or not the fee came out of legal aid funds or the firms own funds). This matches the NCDV generic description of how they operate :

 

 

 

and there is certainly no reference I can find on the website to NCDV receiving a fee for referrals OR for the drafting of the witness statement – indeed they talk about providing their services for free. Whilst they seem to be free to the end user, it appears they are not in fact “for free”. If the NCDV website explanation of its process above can be relied upon as properly summarising its current or recent practice (who knows!), then the Duncan Lewis example is possibly indicative of a wider pattern – the description of what Duncan Lewis were sanctioned for slots neatly in with the publicly described business model they have historically operated on, and buzzfeed certainly suggest that they have seen documents which show that a similar arrangement with Duncan Lewis solicitors was made with others.

If it is (or has been) more widespread there seems to be a mismatch between the best interests of the client and the stated aims of NCDV to provide protection to all, and the way that NCDV appear to be working – something about their business model seems to have distorted their practice and diverted them away from their early, laudable aims. The irony is that because they are not regulated it will be only the solicitors firms who are sanctioned, whilst NCDV will merely suffer reputational damage.

Personally I’m less interested in the technicalities of referral fees than in whether or not funding structures are responsible for NCDV being relied on as a service that provides a

free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation [and] allows anyone to apply for an injunction within 24 hours of first contact (in most circumstances). 

when they don’t.

That quote is from the front page of their website. To be fair, they do say “in most circumstances“, but my reading is that this caveat applies to the speed not the merits. They may be in the minority but certainly some victims are being turned away from this service and left in the cold. As far as I can tell victims are NOT referred on to other providers who don’t operate an arbitrary 10 day rule and who can assist these men and women to access the protection that the law affords them. And I am not confident that the national organisations who are dependent on NCDV to refer their clients to are fully cognisant of this potential gap in protection.

It would be a REALLY good idea if NCDV and their new management team did a proper clear out of their website to remove out of date and potentially confusing / contradictory information, and transparently explain how they work. In addition they would be wise to issue a press statement responding to Buzzfeed’s claims rather than burying their heads in the sand, because many of us will want to know if Buzzfeed’s claims have any merit. It may be that the anecdotal examples I’ve given (And that are in the Buzzfeed piece) are rarities, or borne of training or process issues within NCVO that can be relatively easily sorted – or they may be more widespread and deep rooted, or even culturally entrenched. I don’t know, but I’d like to. I hope it is the former.

I base the opinions I’ve set out here largely on information from NCDV’s own website, but if I’ve misunderstood anything about how NCDV works I will be happy to (transparently) correct it, and if NCDV wish to respond I would be happy to host a response. I do not wish to be unfair to them but can only rely on publicly available information, my own anecdotal experience and common sense. And I think that it is in the public interest for the concerns raised to be fully aired and the quite proper questions raised to be answered.

Foreword to The Third Edition of FCwaL

FCWAL 3 Cover

The Times has today published some selected extracts from the foreword to the third edition of my book The Family Court without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person.

I’ve been asked for the full foreword, so here it is… I especially like the wistful hope at the end that I might not be such a god awful windbag in future editions. You know, I would have written a shorter book, Sir James, but I did not have the time…

 

The Family Court without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person, by Lucy Reed
Foreword by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division

I am delighted to be able to welcome and applaud the latest edition of this important, and for litigants in person in the Family Court, absolutely invaluable book. Written by an author who has vast practical experience of what really goes on in family courts, this Handbook will continue to serve as a trusty, reliable and up-to-date guide and companion to those who find themselves on their own in court and without the assistance of a lawyer.

This latest edition could not be more timely, as the long-term impacts of LASPO on the administration of justice in the family courts become daily more and more apparent. As Mr Justice Cobb said in his Foreword to the last edition, and I could not agree more:

“Now, more than ever, does the obligation fall on those of us working in the family courts to assist litigants in person to achieve the best outcome; this is plainly in their interests, but it is in the interests of justice as a whole. Initiatives across Government and the voluntary sector have gone some way to aid those facing courts on their own; this book makes a huge contribution to those endeavours.”

The Family Justice Council has done valuable work in providing user-friendly literature for litigants in person, but otherwise the work thus far undertaken by Government – whether the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service or the Family Procedure Rule Committee – has been sadly inadequate. So it is to the voluntary sector and to practitioners such as Lucy Reed that we must continue to look.

The truth is that we face a massive challenge. At present our practices and procedures are designed for – assume – a family justice system where the typical litigant has legal representation, whereas the reality is that, across vast swathes of the family justice system, the typical litigant now has no legal representation. The consequence is that practices, procedures and rules designed for lawyers are largely inaccessible – truth be told, unintelligible – to litigants in person. The Family Procedure Rules are a monument to a certain traditional style of legal drafting but are no more useful or intelligible to the litigant than the Tax statutes are to the taxpayer. And most court forms are little better.

The fact that this handbook is as long as it necessarily has to be if it is to achieve our author’s objectives is no criticism of her but rather an indictment of the unnecessarily over-complicated ‘system’ which her readers are condemned to navigate.
In time these serious blots on our system will be remedied, but in the meantime the need for books such as this will only increase. And given the traditional snail’s pace of legal reform in this country I foresee the need for many further editions from our author before we reach the promised land. In an ideal world we would not need a book like this but that world exists only at the end of the rainbow. So we will always need books like this. My hope is that, in due course, as our processes are simplified, our author will be able to produce a correspondingly shorter text. In the meantime I can only hope that she continues her good work. I look forward to the next, and to many further, editions.

James Munby
8 August 2017

The backstory

I am in some doubt that anyone will be terribly interested in this, but I asked you for suggestions for blog posts and the only half serious one that has come back is a request for me to tell my story, and in particular the story of how I became a barrister.

Particularly now I’ve written it, it feels terribly self indulgent. But you did ask…so I’m going to take a deep breath and hit publish.

So, where to begin? At school I suppose. I went to a convent school until I was 11. Goodness only knows why – my parents weren’t religious and certainly weren’t catholic (a fact which the nuns were perpetually reminding me of). The only explanation my mum has ever given me is that she met one of the nuns at the local playgroup and they sounded nice (good research skillz there mum). But I was reasonably bright and hard working and (apart from that time when I played a trick on the teacher at my friend Liz’s insistence and nearly got the cane for my trouble) I was a good girl, even if I was destined to burn in hell with my parents and brother (allegedly).

My mum and dad both went to the local secondary modern, and my dad had to fight with his own father (a postie) to stay on at his school till 16 rather than get a job at 15. He tells a great Monthy Python-esque story with overtones of “paper bag int’d middle o’ road” about his childhood, about playing in bomb sits, about the only tv in the street, about his grocery delivery round on a bike so big he could only dismount by finding a tree and doing a controlled sideways fall into it, and about getting a job as a minion at the Weston Super Mare branch of Lloyds bank. He recounts how he was taken to one side by the Bank Manager after the first week, given his first pay slip and asked if wouldn’t mind buying a suit for next week. He had been wearing his school uniform to work. My dad ended up a bank manager. That bank is a wine bar now.

Oh dear, I’ve gone a bit off topic. Back to school.

I had a bit of a shock when I transferred to the local comp. There a single year group was bigger than my entire primary school had been, the bogs were painted neon green and there were three boys named Stuart in my class, all of whom teased me relentlessly. And Jason Donovan (no, not the Australian soap opera one) teased me relentlessly about the mole on my right cheek. He called me Spot the dog, but given that Jason was routinely called a Paki by the other kids I figured I could have had it worse. And still, I was reasonably bright and hard working and I got on with it. And they only tease you cos they like you (or something).

When we were nearing 16 they sent us to a careers lady. We filled in a multiple choice on a computer screen and at the end it printed out a little card telling me I should be a librarian. Clearly I fed the damned thing the wrong answers. So I ignored it and decided to be a doctor instead (a nice rosy cheeked man from the Constabulary had told me at a careers fair in the school gym that I wouldn’t be tall enough to be a police officer so I’d given that up as soon as I’d thought of it) and chose four A levels to allow me to do it.

I lasted a week on Chemistry A level. Too damned boring. So that was the Doctor whim over with. I decided to be an artist. I still remember my mothers snorts at the idea that such a thing could be a career, and my art teacher looking visibly wounded at my mothers lack of tact. When my friends went to University I stayed behind and went to art college. I loved it. I really wasn’t very good but I loved it anyway. I made seven foot paintings of chickens and marine life. Later my mother got fed up with them cluttering the attic and burnt them on the bonfire (she also cremated the carcass of my delinquent evil parakeet Spanner on the coal fire in the living room for want of some better method of burial, but that’s another story altogether).

And then I went to university. Nobody in my family had ever been to Uni before, but I don’t remember it being a big deal – it was always assumed I’d go. I chose universities that would let me hedge my bets and continue as many of my A level subjects as possible. So I went to study Fine Art and English combined honours at Exeter. But I realised pretty quickly that I was not cut out for a career in the art world (I was not very good at dressing up a pile of junk as a big idea – now I come to think of it perhaps I shouldn’t have become a lawyer after all?), and decided to throw all my energy into English. This meant I had to complete the balance of the English first year part time and worked as a home help to pay my fees. That job, and all my jobs in care homes whilst a student, taught me a lot about life and people. A welcome relief from the self absorbed self entitled gits that feature heavily in Exeter’s not entirely undeserved reputation. I was most definitely not a sloane ranger or a member of the green welly brigade (I stared blankly when someone mentioned these phrases to me just before I started at Exeter. I had no clue what they were on about and found it really difficult to deal with the social shunning that seemed to be so unremarkable to some of my contemporaries who lived life in the expectation that they were on a lazy conveyor belt to inevitable success). Girls in volkswagen polos (posh car then) with mobile phones (luxury item then) and turned up collars who pretended you were invisible. Yuk. And my god, but we all thought the law students were a bunch of t*ssers. With their career fairs and their networking and their exams. Yawn. We English students read novels and poetry all day, and had a taxing four whole hours of lectures a week. And in between I’d beetle off in my nissan micra to give an old lady her breakfast or to give an disabled man a bath, or to feed someone’s cat and put the washing on. Thank god for that sense of perspective.

By the time I left Exeter I wanted to be “an academic”. I had a bit of a brain crush on all my tutors. I was high on critical theory and my new found knowledge of history and politics (the ONLY history I learnt at school was about the grassy knoll and the book depository). I wanted to write terribly clever essays with titles that could mean six different things at once (four of which were only known to me), and with many erudite footnotes.

And so reader, I went to London.

Bear with me guys, I’m getting to the law bit. Honest. Right. This is the bit where the judge is making that face and you have to pick up the pace before you lose your audience…

I’m in London to do a Masters at Birkbeck College, which is mainly part time evening students, most of whom work full time in the day. Its quiet in the daytime, nobody but staff and postgrads. I get collared in a corridor and asked to be the welfare officer for the SU, and this leads to me standing for President of the SU. I run unopposed, which for some reason causes a big stink as some other doofus got disqualified by getting nominated by someone who hadn’t paid his fees and wasn’t a registered student. There is a campaign to re-open nominations cos #notfair. Of course his is before anyone ever invented a hashtag – jeez its the 90s we’d only just invented the goatee. If it had been now I’d have been trolled on twitter, but as it was I just got death stares in the bar. Such was my introduction to politics (small p).

By the time I finish my masters I have decided I want to jump off the top of the ivory tower even if there is a very nasty thud waiting at the bottom for me. I think it was the introduction to philosophy by means of Kant that did it, or possibly the entire module on “Whiteness”. Give me strength. I needed a life involving real people who eat actual food and poop, instead of people who living on a cloud and have important thoughts about whiteness. So I was quite glad to be starting a sabbatical as President. I had a salary of £16k (an almost unimaginable fortune to me) and my own office right next to the bar, in which I can smoke as many fags as I like. People come to see me all the time to tell me tales of woe, to bum a fag or to persuade me to go for a pint.

Whilst I’m at the students union I do a number of things. I get me a Vice President. He’s a handsome man from the USA. I had spotted him in the bar, identifiable as a friendly American by his choice of shorts and sandals in a freezing cold May. I did a split second calculation based on this simple visual observation – definitely American and therefore high probability that he would be so friendly he’d be unable to say no to my request to stand as VP. Who says sterotypes don’t pay off? I was right. Also, I later married him. Sadly, he has learnt to say no to me sometimes and he does still wear shorts even when its snowing.

Yes, so whilst I am President of the SU for 2 years (I get re-elected when the grumpy RON campaigners realise I am actually not evil and I am reasonably bright and work hard), I start an advice centre. I’ve been volunteering at the University of London Advice Centre for a while, but its only open in the daytime and is focused on the problems of young students who are in their late teens / early twenties. My students can’t access that or their CAB because they are at work and they have a whole different set of issues – so we set up a project that runs in the evenings that they can. It’s still going (about the only thing that is, I’m sad to say). I dealt with all the academic appeals and complaints and I sat on all the 20 odd committees from Estates, to Academic, to Governors. I developed a reputation for speaking up and challenging – I think I was expected to sit there and look freaked out at the grown up talk and occasionally hum a Billy Bragg tune under my breath or something. Instead I said “why don’t you do this instead?” or “I don’t agree with that because”. I redrafted the constitution. And we made leaflets and information materials galore, all copied on brightly coloured paper and folded by yours truly.

Yeah, sounds a bit like lawyering dunnit? But of course I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Because lawyers are all – well, you know the stereotypes. I bought into those. Venal, pompous clever dicks without a conscience. And I definitely wasn’t one of those.

I spent my time dealing with students in crisis. Mental health problems, fleeing domestic abuse, being kicked out for cheating, lost their job, split up from their wife…Some of the vulnerable students who came to see me had been handed from President to President, and were both dependent and persistent. But as time went on, the people who came into my office to tell me all the reasons why the Academic Registrar was wrong to kick them out just because they had been registered for 15 years and still hadn’t finished their PHd, and the people who came into my office to explain that the voices in their head were better this week, and the people who came in to ask me to raise an issue at the next Governors meeting, and the people who came in to bum a fag kept saying “you should be a lawyer you know”. All idiots, plainly. Except the voices got louder. And they were all strangely saying the same thing.

So one day, when I realised I wasn’t going to be able to sit and smoke myself to death in my office forever, I googled it. This was in the days when websites took a year to load and then were utterly shite, and you ended up having to phone someone to ask them to send you stuff on paper anyway (I know, right?). And I realised that the stuff I was getting a buzz out of, and the stuff I was actually really good at was a lot like the stuff a lawyer did. And that was it. Other ideas for jobs had come and gone. This one never did. From the moment I landed on it its always been that. And it was always the bar (in spite of what the awful bloke who interviewed me for a Lincoln’s Inn Scholarship said it was always the bar. He wondered patronisingly whether I didn’t really want to be a solicitor after all. I will never forget that interview. He made me feel like my willingness to spend time with clients was a grubby thing that only solicitors did. He was an idiot, and he didn’t put me off. I’d have been a terrible solicitor).

And so, in October 2000 I did two things : I started my conversion course at City University. And I married that American from the bar at Birkbeck (And my dad made a brilliant dad-joke at the wedding breakfast about the Three Degrees). I didn’t want to do more studying, but I definitely wanted to be a lawyer. So every Monday, instead of using my designated “Library day” to do something obvious like going to the library, I went to work to help pay my fees. I worked 9am Monday to 9am Tuesday (a sleeping shift acting as personal assistant for a man with cerebral palsy) and rocked up at 10am on Tuesday to start my lectures. In my bar year I worked as a policy officer for Walthamstow Volunteer Centre and volunteered at the Lambeth Law Centre and Race Discrimination Unit. The volunteer centre had no staff to speak of by the time I left but by gum they had a set of policies to die for, covering every topic you could ever dream of. I did some mini-pupillages, including some in Bristol where I sat in on some hideous, soul destroying middle class intractable contact involving a girl who had stress related alopecia and a father so rigid he couldn’t respond to her. God I thought, I definitely don’t want to do that area of law.

In October 2002 I started as a pupil at 29 Bedford Row. When I’d applied for it I had hoped to get some experience in education and employment law, but as it happened they’d had some sort of major rejig. They sent us pupils a nice letter in July explaining they were going to be a family specialist set from now on but we were still very welcome to come if we’d like. Cheers then. If we’d like? Of course we went, we didn’t have any choice. As it happens I spent my first six months with a pupil master who did more education law than family (he was one of the few non-family bods left). I drafted some of the lengthiest pleadings the Administrative Court has ever seen, and had a thoroughly brilliant time, the highlight was going to the House of Lords. My second six was a curious mix of vibration white finger and big money divorce. My abiding memory is of sitting in conference with women who obviously had to have £10,000 a year for each of their pool man or their dog grooming or their beauty treatments. I spent the entire time willing myself not to remark out loud on the coincidence that this was the exact same amount of money I had to live on for a year.

I left 29 Bedford Row for a third six at Tanfield Chambers. They hadn’t been able to take us on because they had no baby work, and I couldn’t afford to squat as the two possession hearings a week wasn’t going to match my loans repayments. The first week at Tanfield I was instructed by the Race Discrimination Unit on a 20 day trial for 3 defendants who had worked for the MoD. They claimed unfair dismissal and race discrimination. To say I was bricking it was an understatement. I had EVERY one of those 25 witnesses cross examination prepped on day 1 (who even does that?). On day 5 the MoD folded. I never got paid for that case, but it didn’t matter : that was my first real experience of cross examination. And it taught me to hold my nerve. Cos it was a bloody good result. Nobody expected me to pull it off, including me.

At Tanfield I was in court every day all day, sometimes twice a day – almost all family, a smattering of employment. At the end of the third six i took my nose ring out on the advice of the senior clerk and was duly taken on. By this point I was both resigned to having been sucked into family law against my will, and beginning to realise I was actually rather good at it. I combined a family and employment practice until I left Tanfield in 2008 to come back to Bristol and to St John’s. Family law was always my first string, but when I went on maternity leave I ditched the employment law – too much to keep up to speed with. And I finally surrendered to the serendipitous pull of family law.

And so, in July 2008 I started work at St John’s in Bristol, breast pump at the ready, new baby at home – and I haven’t looked back since.

If you’re still with me – well done. I don’t doubt many will not be remotely interested in this, but I do realise the power accounts like these can have to encourage others to come to the bar even though they may feel they don’t not fit the mould. I don’t claim to be anything other than privileged – this is not a tale of rags to riches, and I’m not Caitlin Moran (although I would quite like her hair), but I know that if I have sometimes felt like I don’t fit in it must be so much more acute for others with stronger accents and different coloured skin and more acute financial difficulties than I ever had to experience. Others have it much tougher than I, and although that chap at Lincoln’s Inn didn’t think I quite looked the part I can pass of as one of ’em most of the time. When you get to my age though you realise you don’t have to pass as one of ’em, you just have to pass as yourself.

Not that I’d recommend the family bar of course. We’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But that’s another blog post. And if you want to come and join us in our handbasket I for one will welcome you with open arms and a barely noticeable brizzle burr.