Not Good Enough

This week the response to my request from a London County Court for an urgent interim contact hearing (1/2 day time estimate) was an offer of a slot ‘in December or possibly end of January’. That is just not good enough for a father of a 18 month old child who wants to see his baby daughter and hasn’t seen her for a couple of months already. Its far too long. Credit to the Judge who is going to try and sort out something better, but what am I supposed to say to clients? ‘Deal with it?’

And whilst I’m griping when did it become ok for court staff (at a different court) to chew gum and wear tatty t-shirts at the counter whilst ‘serving’ customers? If she had even been polite it might not have mattered but she was full on rude and pretty useless.

What exactly does a family barrister do?

Insightful question…Unless you’ve had the misfortune to need a family barrister you most probably don’t have much of a clue what we do. Most people I meet (including my Mum, bless her) don’t have a very clear picture of what barristers do, let alone family barristers. And if your best source is (mainly american) legal dramas on telly you’ve probably got it completely arse about face.

So what does a barrister do? Some of what barristers do can also be done by solicitors, but these are totally separate professions, unlike America where all lawyers are – well, lawyers. Barristers are not more senior than solicitors, they are just different. Barristers are specialist advocates. We are trained in representing a client in court, in arguing a case and in cross examining witnesses at a trial. We are also often asked to advise a client and the solicitor about a specific aspect of a case, and sometimes to draft legal documents. Barristers tend to spend a good deal of their time in court, or on their way to court…or on their way back from court…we travel a lot. Barristers are self employed and cannot pick and choose what cases they take on. This is called the cab rank rule – if a fare comes along you take it. In most cases, to instruct a barrister you need to go through a solicitor, who will be responsible for the litigation part of a case (the taking of initial instructions, the issue of proceedings, the gathering of evidence, the preparation of a case for trial, and of course the instruction of counsel (barrister). Its still probably true that most barristers are from Oxford or Cambridge, but this is increasingly less true (I am part of an expanding minority of non-oxbridge types). In other respects also the bar is slowly becoming more diverse.

So what about family barristers? What do they do?

Typically a family barrister will represent either a parent or a local authority or a child in family cases. These will often relate to disputes about where a child should live or how much time a parent should spend with the child, disputes about the finances arising when couples divorce, disputes about property and finances when unmarried couples separate, injunctions where there is domestic violence and care and adoption proceedings when the state intervenes to try and protect a child from harm it thinks the child is suffering. We might represent a father or husband one day and a wife or mother the next (not in the same case obviously).

Because cases involving children need the court to keep a careful and regular eye on developments in the case, these cases often involve lots of short hearings at intervals of a few months. This and the nature of family work in general means that family lawyers are in court more often than most lawyers working in other areas. Not everything we do is a full trial, but a lot of what we do is in court. I am in court probably 4 days out of 5 each week, usually in a different place in London and the South East. I make a short trip to my desk most days to catch up on paperwork and make phone calls, but the bulk of my time is spent at court, taking instructions from and advising a client, addresing a judge or negotiating outside the door of the court.

In the family courts we rarely wear a wig and gown, but this does happen occasionally (if somebody has breached an injunction and the court is considering sending them to prison this is serious stuff and requires legal robes).