Family Justice Narratives: No. 1

This is the first in the Family Justice Narratives. You can find out what the Family Justice Narratives are all about and how to get involved here.

Narrative No 1 : ANONYMOUS SOLICITOR

I’ve been a solicitor since 1988 and worked for the same firm throughout and always in family law.

This week was exhausting but every week is pretty much. Often with legal aid work you take on more than is comfortable because :

– you feel bad if someone calls and says they’ve tried loads of other solicitors and no one will take them
– they have something urgent happening DV or a hearing on children
– you would not do this work if you did not want to help people

I do legal aid work but I also do a lot of private work as well- if I didn’t I could not do the legal aid work it just wouldn’t bring in enough income to keep the wolf from the door.

I often work on Sundays a hangover from when the children were younger and OH took them to church. I often feel guilty that I didn’t spend enough time with when they were younger. I don’t take a lot of holiday though I’m trying to get a bit better about that.

The above all sounds a bit poor me so stopping that now. I have a print in my room at work of some dockers working in the States to remind me that my work is pretty easy in comparison!

In terms of what works I think nothing works for everyone there is no one size fits all. I do think that solicitors have a duty to be very careful how they write to the ex spouse or partner. An awful lot of damage is still done by aggressive letters /actions at the beginning and hard to repair later. I think a simple thing of picking up the phone to the other persons solicitor and saying how can we sort this out? We all seem to make less phone calls to each other writing emails and letters instead, picking up the phone can cut through a lot of stuff, especially if there’s no posturing.

Where children are involved one of the problems for fathers is that if there is no contact there’s quite a delay in getting some contact sorted out. Courts in London (I don’t have much experience of courts outside) can’t seem to list hearings quicker than for 6 weeks or so’s time, considering that for legal aid there is no emergency funding and there has to be a mediation referral before that – it could be 4 months before a first hearing – if the issues do not involve violence /sexual abuse etc is there any reason why the relationship should be so adversely affected by delay. It’s probably sensible to tell the client to issue the application themselves if they are entitled to legal aid and then let the admin catchup. There may have been a delay in the client seeing a solicitor so the time lapse may be longer.

There are few voluntary contact centres for unsupervised contact left and there are often waiting lists, when I started there were many more, they are all disappearing and not replaced with an alternative. If they are what it takes to get a short term solution going there better than nothing.

The first hearing on a contact dispute being conciliation has many advantages if there is some contact taking place, but if there is none and a strong indication that none will be offered it ought to be possible to leap frog the hearing and go to an interim contact hearing straightway or as one DJ used to do tell the person not giving the contact that an interim hearing will be listed for the afternoon. Conciliation appointments can be really useful but children 9 and over going to see the Cafcass officer at court can give them a perception that dad is dragging us to court which may simply give a feeling of resentment and put obstacles in the way of contact taking place.

Educating people about the effects that parental conflict has on their children would be very good. Mediation can be very good for that, if it’s possible. I am an advocate of mediation particularly around contact issues. Having a mediator there who can ‘ bring the children into the room’ not in reality but in the parents minds is awesome when it works, getting people to test their position in relation to their children and trying to put some of the other stuff aside can work really well. The mediator can quickly tell if lip service is being paid in going to mediation as a delaying tactic. Sometimes it’s as simple as a misunderstanding between parents other times their respective attitudes about how the children should be raised has contributed greatly to the breakdown of the relationship. That’s a really tricky one. I don’t have the answers but I think the art is in trying to get the parents to find some of those answers.

Lack of resources is a huge problem only likely to get worse to the power of a thousand. Parenting after parting workshops are only for privately paying clients, PIPS are a good thing – I don’t know if there is any research as to how effective they have been [Ed There is: here]. But the parents don’t go together on those which is a shame. A big new piece of research on the effect of parental relationship breakdown on children would be good I know we have the family justice review and the response but something which was shorter and more media capturing would be good. For example how many adults in prison came from broken homes, the life chances generally of children who’s parents have been in high open conflict, difficult because not all those divorce or separate.

I think an organisation like akidspace is a really good idea where children go to a group without their parents and get the chance to talk to other kids in the same situation, it’s for 7-11 year olds only, there doesn’t seem to be anything for teenagers and akidspace get no government funding. Could Cafcass ask the courts to direct where children need it. Who pays is always the biggie. But it is saving money in the long term and not setting children up to fail when they grow up and have their own relationships.

I think the highs for me have mainly come from mediation. Sometimes one session can work a little magic with contact arrangements. People have rarely had someone who can be there in a safe place where they feel their partner can hear what their saying and feeling and practical dialogue about how to move forward can take place.

The lows are probably around dealing with women who have been badly beaten in one case whilst pregnant, (I went in the loo and cried – but that was a long time ago) and a client who was murdered by her estranged husband. A client recently who died from a heart attack while trying to get contact, and clients involved in lengthy proceedings dealing with that and then developing cancer – the toll of these disputes on the body is massive.

I think there’s little respect for lawyers on the whole – the fat cat image – the idea we are making money out of others’ distress, but you could say that about Doctors and undertakers psychiatrists etc etc. despite quite a few articles there’s little realisation of what a high st solicitor or barrister doing legal aid earns even if that is supplemented by privately paying clients. Our salaries are on the whole tiny compared to GP’s for example – yet the length of training is similar the hours put in the same or more.

We have a difficult job we have a duty to the client, their children and the court. We are dealing with very different representatives of the spouse, sometimes a magic circle firm who’s client can throw lots of money at his legal reps whilst I might be acting for someone on legal aid – where is the equality of arms. In other situations there may be an inexperienced paralegal representing the other person.

There are many who feel that they are going into battle – they are frightened and a large chunk of their assets go into legal costs. There is a huge public perception that you will ‘win’ if you have the big boys behind you. I don’t think that’s true. However there are situations where people of modest means do accept settlements they shouldn’t.

An important influence for me has been man underlying need for fairness, I literally can’t stand it when I perceive something isn’t fair. There are plenty of inspirational people around. Some Judges and District Judges have been amazing grabbing hold of a situation quickly and dealing with it appropriately having respect for the court is vital. Many people say the court is not an appropriate place for family disputes, I have some sympathy however what is the alternative, the decisions made have to be binding, collaborative law has a way to go to get into the public psyche and there is no legal aid for it and no legal aid for virtually anything soon.

No fault divorce is a good idea and I applaud it. But dealing with conflict built up over years is probably nigh on impossible, I think the refrain of many clients that there ex partner hasn’t changed despite the time that’s past, the work that has been done or the orders that have been made is not uncommon. Changing behaviours / conflict is difficult but we should at least be aiming not to make things worse. I aim not to do any harm and I try to do some good.

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