Perceptions of the Bar

In November 07 the Bar Standards Board published the results of a piece of commissioned MORI research on Perceptions of Barristers. Somewhat shamefully I have failed to comment on it before now and it was only when a review of the report appeared in this month’s Counsel magazine that I have been galvanised into action and finally looked at the detail of the report.

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There are some interesting findings, and some stark mismatches between what we barristers think of ourselves, what we think other people think of us and what other people actually think of us! In very broad terms the views of the general public appear to be less negative than we expect them to be, for example 47% of barristers believe that the public think barristers are out of touch whereas only 16% of the public think this. However whilst 56% of barristers believe the public think barristers are a trusted and highly regarded profession when in fact only around three in ten members of the public feel this. 80% of barristers expect the public to think barristers are well paid, whilst in fact only 60% of the public think that. And only 27% of us believe we are well paid.

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Whilst this report plainly covers some of the issues touched upon in this blog and in the comments arising from various posts – around the integrity of the bar, the effectiveness of the family court system and the levels of service provided to clients sadly, like so much material published about the Bar, this is really a piece of work about the criminal bar. Although a large sample of the general public were sampled (some of whom no doubt have had a brush with a family barrister), 100% of the lay clients sampled for the purposes of the qualitative element of the survey were either prisoners, acquitted defendants or ‘commercial’ clients. There were no lay clients interviewed who had been involved in the family justice system, and so I would say these results are likely to be unreliable in terms of perceptions of the bar both overall and specifically the family bar. Aside from the criminal justice system it is through the family court system that most people encournter us and the criminal bar is simply a different kettle of fish.

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I should think that similar issues would arise to those that cropped up in this report, such as the question of client care and the time spent with a client before a hearing (I would hope that the Family Bar would fare better on this than the bar as a whole) and the question of the integrity of the profession (where I fear the Family Bar might fare rather worse, at least in the eyes of lay clients or litigants in person). But as far as I am aware there is no equivalent report out there which can help us answer those questions except anecdotally. It would be an important piece of work in times when the family legal aid system is under review and the family bar is under siege as the Government tries to cut costs for the important work that we do and tries to ensure that public funding is utilised in cost effective ways.

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Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a comparative piece of work commissioned that told us what family barristers think of themselves, and what the general public think of them? However, I don’t suppose the Bar Standards Board has the inclination and I don’t suppose the Family Law Bar Association has the money. What a shame.

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The Family Bar is the one area of the bar that people are likely to come into contact regardless of who they are. They deserve to be recognised as a distinct and important part of the Bar. This report unfortunately demonstrates the common assumption that what is applicable to the Criminal Bar is applicable to the rest of it (or perhaps of forgetting that other areas even exist). It would have been so much more interesting if the report had considered whether or not perceptions of the Bar were uniform across all areas of work or not. I do not know if this is a flaw in the brief from the Bar Standards Board to MORI or the work carried out by them, but someone somewhere needs to examine the perception that ‘The Bar’ is synonomous with ‘The Criminal Bar’. It is not.

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P.S.

I am afraid it is no surprise to me that the limitations of this report are not brought identified in Counsel magazine which is just one culprit of the sloppy thinking about the (criminal) bar identified above. It is a source of long-standing irritation on my part that Counsel Magazine (‘The Journal of the Bar of England and Wales’ and paid for by my subscriptions) contains precious little applicable or of interest to those of us who practice at the ever expanding Family Bar. I read it hopefully every month, and almost every month I am disappointed (it is redeemed only by the regular inclusion of articles on overarching topics like Human Rights). But this is a whinge for another blog entry, or perhaps I should just write to the Editor and make my point directly?….

I HATE MEN (allegedly)

Actually I quite like them. They are very useful. I am married to one and he has been put to work cleaning the house as I type…But I have discovered that these men types are not all as loveable as him upstairs:

I came across a rather unpleasant cluster of websites today whose focus is on the divers ways in which women and feminism are evil / destructive / conspiring with the communists to bring about the apocalypse etc…Your run of the mill women-hating rot? Well, they made me shudder.

Starting at what men are saying about women which is wholly and unapologetically misogynist (perhaps its not considered rude in Oz), I follow blogroll links to the UK based end of men (which includes the very measured claim that feminism destroys not just the family but also destroys whole populations – see ‘why feminism is a fraud’ Nov 8 and the About page which develops the argument from feminists=men-haters to a government conspiracy to global depopulation enslavement and (dun dun DUUUN) THE END OF MANKIND! Crikey. This blog also expresses some incredulity at the suggestion that a father who punched two social workers (one heavily pregnant and one holding his four month old baby) before snatching his child and going on the run (the baby was under a care order) should get a prison sentence. Clearly he should have got a pat on the back and a lollipop for the kid.), and fembot hunter (‘Applying logic, facts and accountability to the mindless droning of the feminist hate movement’ – apparently) and ukmensaid (which purports to demystify the UK law around divorce and children and tells you what lawyers won’t – (lawyers won’t tell you it because much of it is simply inaccurate and mis-states the law or misinterprets data. For example I’m unlikely to write an article on a piece of legislation that doesn’t exist viz ‘Children Act 1991’).

I had to give up trawling through these in the end, the few links above are just my personal favourites. And of course many of these sites link into the more acceptable face of father’s / men’s rights, such as fathers4justice / realfathers4justice (and probably realrealrealfathers4realjustice) etc. (everything’s relative). I think the scariest thing is the idea that men in the process of relationship breakdown who are struggling to understand what is happening to their family and why, and who are looking for explanations will find themselves surrounded by a wealth of sources like these all of which espouse the view that we (that’s women) are out to get special treatment and that the state or the family justice system is out to ensure that this happens. I mean, they have big words in them and everything so they must be right.

So, by way of example uk mens aid suggests here that the reason why the vast majority of divorces are granted to women (about 80%) is a grand conspiracy by the courts (not sanctioned by Parliament I might add – tskk) to deprive the man ‘of his home, his children and his money’ (my emphasis). The reality is that its far more likely to be because it is women who are in the most vulnerable position financially after a separation (childcare responsibilities curtail their earning capacity and they are often left in the matrimonial home with no means to pay the mortgage) and this means that they need to get on with the divorce quickly so that they can sort out the financial situation before the house is repossessed. Often men, feeling there is no incentive to get on with the divorce or the division of assets dilly dally whilst the mortgage company threatens repo. And what uk mens aid omits to mention is that the question of WHO gets the divorce has no bearing AT ALL on how the money is divided.

If this is the kind of information available to men, and the mindset with which men approach the family courts system then their perception of their experience may well be distorted by the kind of suggestions made on these sites – coming from this angle everything that the courts / lawyers do no doubt looks like proof of the argument that the system is biased against them. And the problem with this is that if you approach the system with a chip that big it can obscure your view of what is really happening.

So on the one hand the fathers / mens movement is complaining of the adversarial / confrontational nature of the family courts system and yet discussion boards and blogs are full of the rhetoric of war and hatred, pumping up men who are at a difficult stage in their lives to do battle with this injustice rather than agree with anything the women might say for fear of being branded a namby pamby metrosexual or feminised new man (these are apparently the actual creation of man-hating feminists – a bit like how Nation of Islam think white men were the freaky creation of a mad scientist? Oh…I digress).

I’m all for injustices being exposed and righted, but to suggest – as these sites collectively do – that everything is an example of some sinister and systematic anti-male ideology and to place the arrangements for resolving disputes about the breakdown of family relationships at the centre of this conspiracy, so that every court case is approached as a battle ground, is to encourage father’s and husbands to miss the point. Relationship breakdown involves real individual children with their own individual personalities and needs, and real individual adults with their own individual quirks and strengths and weaknesses. And real pain – hatred may be a byproduct but it should not be the fuel for or purpose of the exercise.

So anyway, now I really have to go and help my entirely equal other half with the cleaning. Or he might get paranoid.

Postscript 16 Nov: Charon QC’s post yesterday has revealed another gem of an anti-women website (see section on feminism in particular).

Il y a rien de va va voom

Why are celebrity divorces always reported with the same meaningless and inaccurate catchphrases? As if it weren’t bad enough to see constant references to ‘writs’ (whatever they are) and ‘restraining orders’ (actually, these exist but what is usually meant is non-molestation order – viz reports today about a certain DJ breaching what was probably a non-mol) in the press – as if that weren’t enough, today the evening freeby papers all report the ‘£25million’ divorce case in which Henry was accused of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ and that his wife was granted a ‘quickie divorce’.

Of course whilst there might be £25m in the pot there won’t be a ‘£25m record settlement’ as one rag put it (or I’ll eat my hat), maybe a £12.5m settlement or something less. And, anyone without knowledge of how divorce works of course is likely to assume that Henry has been guilty of some terrible conduct in order for his poor wife to be granted a ‘quickie’, something apparently only celebrity divorcees can obtain.

All that this tosh splashed all over the front page means is that a bog standard divorce petition has been presented to the court and that because both parties want to get the matter over and done with Henry has not contested the petition. In the absence of adultery one of them had to allege unreasonable behaviour and since its the Wife who often wants to get a move on with the finances its often her who ‘goes first’ with her petition for divorce to get the ball rolling. Thats all a quickie divorce is – one where you don’t fight hammer and tongs about who was the biggest idiot. It leaves you with energy to fight about the finances (or if you’re sensible energy to get on with your life once you’ve agreed them). It must be really irritating to be the ‘accused’ in these stupid reports when you’ve agreed for practical reasons to let the petition to proceed. 

So basically, the ‘story’ boils down to this: Thierry Henry and his wife have agreed to get divorced in the usual way. They have to sort out their finances, and we think he’s worth £25m but we have no idea what she’ll get because they haven’t got anywhere with that part of it yet.

The pronouncement of a Decree Nisi, which is what happened today, is such a non-event – we already knew they were getting divorced for goodness sake. Isn’t there enough other rubbish to report in the interlude whilst we’re waiting for some news on the financial side of it? Couldn’t we have something more interesting on the front page? (just a big picture of Thierry Henry without words would do for me, but perhaps that wouldn’t have the right appeal). AND, whilst I’m being petty – Claire Merry has NOT been granted a quickie divorce, she’s been granted a NISI. She won’t be divorced until she gets her Decree Absolute.