“Paedophiles to lose parental rights” – but what does that actually mean?

[UPDATE – there is an update at the end of this post]

Last week, I found myself unexpectedly recording an episode of BBC Newscast with Sanchia Berg and Harriet Harman MP. The prompt for the episode was a reform to legislation proposed by Harriet Harman, supported by the Lord Chancellor and currently under consideration in Parliament. The amendment came about as a result of coverage of a family court case by Sanchia Berg last year. That coverage had only been made possible by the transparency reforms that were being piloted in family courts, which made it easier for reporters to report private hearings. Ostensibly, I was on the show to discuss those transparency issues, and made clear I wasn’t familiar with the detail of the proposed amendment (and there was no time to research it before the recording), but in fact the discussion was focused primarily on the proposed law reform that it was said would result in ‘paedophiles losing parental rights’.


The recording is now available on BBC iPlayer here. In fact, although it’s seamlessly done and imperceptible to the listener, there are some chunks of what I said which have been edited out (this is quite normal, as pre-records are often longer than the slot the finished product must fit in, but I do think some of the sense of what I had said has been lost in editing).


One of the things that was edited out was my query about the scope of the amendment. I wanted to go back and re-listen to Harriet Harman’s response to my query – but in fact that has gone too. I think that’s a shame, particularly because now I’ve been able to sit down and look up her amendment I can see my query was a legitimate one. My impression of Harman’s response was that it was something that hadn’t actually been considered or bottomed out, though I can’t verify my recollection by listening back to it.


The Newscast episode also briefly alluded to the reform of the law in 2009 to permit reporters to attend family court hearings, swiftly followed by much upset when it became clear that the reforms didn’t change a thing about how much could be reported. That was frustrating for everyone, and so this post is intended to try and avoid a situation where, like in 2009, everyone gets very excited by a law reform which doesn’t in fact do quite what everyone had assumed it would.


The proposed change


Those I have spoken to who had been following the story had understood ‘paedophiles to lose parental rights’ to mean something quite different to the actual effect of the amendments as currently drafted, and were surprised to find out what it actually does and doesn’t do. As far as I can see, the coverage of this story hasn’t linked to the actual amendment, and I thought it was important to check the headlines and media reports against the draft legislation.


So, in this post I am absolutely not advocating for one reform or another. I am not criticising the amendment itself – Harriet Harman gives a fascinating account in the podcast of all of the work that has to be done, and the things which have to fall into alignment to get an amendment through – it is a combination of both hard work and luck that there is any amendment at all. But I am trying to understand what this reform actually IS and to manage expectations through analysis of the amendment as drafted against the existing legal framework.


There are other aspects of the podcast episode which I’m not dealing with in this post – it is quite long enough. But there were a couple of oddities in the history of transparency reform given by Harriet Harman, and I don’t think she has quite got the history right. I’m also not considering what Harriet Harman said about the ‘carve out’ to preserve fathers’ rights, which is a piece of law reform history that I’m not familiar with and have not yet had time to track down and fully understand.


I would hope that future Parliamentary debate and media coverage of this issue is able to encompass the point I am going to explain here about the scope of the amendment, because I think that so far it is absent from coverage I’ve seen. That isn’t a criticism of the coverage to date (my explanation is far more long and windy than the mainstream media’s necessarily tight word counts will allow), but I do think it’s important that people understand what the reform will and won’t do.


What led to the change


So, to backtrack to the original issue. Sanchia reported on a case where a father had been convicted of multiple sexual offences against children. He was barred from contact with children but retained his parental rights (including a say in foreign trips, education etc). The mother of his daughter was concerned about what would happen when he came out of prison and how he might try to exercise parental responsibility (‘PR’). She applied to the court to restrict his PR. She invited journalists to attend because she felt it would ensure a fair trial and because it might lead to change. The judge did agree to restrict the parental responsibility, and according to the BBC (the judgment hasn’t been published) the judge made an order confirming the child should live with her mother, and the father is now forbidden from any contact with his daughter until she turns 18. The judge also made a barring order preventing any applications from him without permission of the judge – but the application took many months to resolve and the legal fees had to be met by the mother.


Sanchia tells the story of how she exposed this ‘glaring legal anomaly’ by reporting this legal issue here. You can read Sanchia’s recent piece focusing on the reform here, and the original coverage from November here.


What the reporting doesn’t spell out is that because the father was married to the mother when the child was born he had automatic PR, which the court has no power to remove (except through adoption). The court is permitted to restrict the PR of a married father where appropriate, which is what the court agreed to do here. Many fathers have PR because even though they weren’t married to the child’s mother their name is on the child’s birth certificate, or because that PR has been awarded by the court (these are the main routes). Under s 4(2A) Children Act 1989, the court is allowed to completely remove PR from those fathers where that is justified – but that section doesn’t apply to married fathers. In each case though, the court is required to consider the background, the risks and benefits before making a decision about restricting or removing PR.


It is clear from the initial report and the reports of the outcome of the case that the mother’s concerns were (understandably) not just about removal or restriction of parental responsibility, but also about potential future contact between the father and child – it is recorded in November that the mother was ‘asking the court to remove her ex-husband’s parental rights and ban all contact – direct, indirect and through social media – until their daughter turns 18’, and it appears that the father was asking for indirect contact and potentially had aspirations to more in the longer term: ‘He hopes he can be reassessed when he’s released and requests an annual report detailing how his daughter is doing.’


So much for the background. What does the amendment actually say and do and how does it change the existing law?


What the amendment says


When I went on the podcast I assumed that Harriet Harman had planned to amend part 1 of the Children Act 1989, which is where parental responsibility is defined and the framework for it being granted and removed is set out. Having now checked the amendment (to the Criminal Justice Bill) it does precisely that, by inserting a new section 2A. You can read it here https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-04/0155/amend/criminal_rm_rep_0419.pdf (see page 2), but as its quite short I’ve set it out in full below.


Removal of parental responsibility for men convicted of sexual offences against children

After section 2 (parental responsibility for children) of the Children Act 1989, insert—

2A Prisoners: suspension of parental responsibility

(1) This section applies where— (a) a person (“A”) has been found guilty of a serious sexual offence involving or relating to a child or children; and (b) A had parental responsibility for a child or children at the time at which the offence was committed.

(2) A ceases to have parental responsibility for all children, for a time specified by the sentencing court or until an application by A to the family court to reinstate parental responsibility has been approved.””


What does this mean in layperson’s terms?


It means that for mums like Bethan, the mum in Sanchia’s report, she would not have had to go to court to curtail the father’s PR. Note that the conviction doesn’t have to be for sexual abuse of the child that the offender hold PR for – he just has to be convicted of a relevant offence against any child and the amendment will take effect. It would happen automatically. It would mean that (subject to a successful application brought by the father) the mother could make most decisions about the child without reference to the father. That would include foreign travel, religious upbringing, education and as illustrated here in a report about another similar case, a change of surname.


However, the amendment won’t stop the father making an application to court to get his PR back, and if he did, the mother would not be guaranteed to be provided with legal aid.


Importantly – and this is the point that I raised with Harriet Harman which was edited out – the amendment doesn’t have any bearing at all on contact. The coverage slips between the terms parental responsibility and parental rights but in fact they aren’t the same. Parental responsibility is one aspect of parental rights, but there are other rights that a father has even if he does not have PR. For example, any father, even if he doesn’t have PR is entitled to make an application under s8 Children Act 1989 (which includes contact applications) without permission. This is set out in s10(4)(a) Children Act 1989. The Harman amendment doesn’t amend s8 or s10 of the Act. S8 also allows a father with no PR (including one with suspended PR under the amendment) to apply for an order prohibiting a change of name, foreign travel or specifying the school the child should go to, or the religion they should be brought up in. That’s not to say such an application would succeed, but nothing in the amendment prevents a father from trying – or protects a mother from the consequences of him doing so.


If Bethan’s case happened under the proposed new law, she would still have had to apply to court if she wanted an order saying the child should live with her (which is sometimes helpful when travelling abroad or dealing with authorities), that the father should not have any contact for the remainder of her childhood or for a barring order stopping contact or other applications.


Just because the law says a father is entitled to apply to court doesn’t mean, of course, that his application would be successful. Given the same facts, the court would still be likely to reach the same conclusions it did in Bethan’s case – but one of the key issues highlighted in Sanchia’s reporting is the cost (emotional and financial) on a protective parent (Bethan) of having to apply, and of having to trog through the process – even when it comes to the ‘right’ decision. Harriet took issue with my suggestion that the big issue was the process a protective parent had to endure, but it is undoubtedly a huge burden for a mother like Bethan to bear, even if the court deals with the application relatively swiftly (as it did in her case). Where Harriet is right is that the answer lies in primary legislation – the court itself has to adjudicate fairly in respect of rights which exist. If it is said they shouldn’t entertain such applications at all, or that a parent with rights should have to show why these should continue rather than the other way around, then law has to change. Once it has changed, the courts will apply the new law.


I think this amendment will help tackle the problem of the burden being on the protective mother, but I don’t think it will completely eradicate it. If a determined and manipulative father has his PR suspended as a result of this amendment, he can still apply for the suspension to be lifted, or simply take another tack – by applying for some other order under s8, for example, arrangements for contact. If he did, the court would most likely reject them, but not before the mother was put through the process. I do think that (as in Bethan’s case) courts in recent years are much more attuned to the harmful and potentially abusive or retraumatising impact on carers and children of the court process itself, and are much more ready to make barring orders than they used to be – but these are not guarantees for an anxious parent.


It would be possible for an amendment to also suspend the right to apply for s8 orders, for example by amending s91(14) so that a barring order was automatic on conviction – but that isn’t currently proposed.


Legal aid


I note also that when then chair of the FLBA Hannah Markham KC was asked for a quote about this piece in November she pointed out the absence of legal aid for mothers like Bethan, and how changing the rules around legal aid might assist protective parents like her. The amendment does not alter the fact that IF the father were to apply to court the mother may well not be eligible for legal aid to respond to his application, and if a future Bethan wanted to apply for a barring order or some other safeguard her legal aid eligibility would be no different either. Again, it would be possible if Parliament wanted to, to provide for legal aid for mothers responding to applications by fathers convicted of sexual offences against children, but the amendment as drafted doesn’t do so.


Other related amendments


There are a number of other draft amendments to family law currently in Parliament. Those include ‘Jade’s Law’ (which relates to the suspension of parental responsibility for parents convicted of murdering the other parent – or, if Baroness Chakrabarti’s further proposed amendment is accepted of a sexual offence against a child of the family the other parent*), and one relating to psychologists. I’m not dealing with those here, but they are contained in a different Bill – the Victims and Prisoner’s Bill.

* error corrected



I’m not a Parliamentary process expert at all, but my understanding of the position with this amendment is that Harriet Harman is confident it will pass because it has cross party and governmental support, and even if a General Election is called before the Criminal Justice Bill that it belongs to has passed, this amendment will pass as a result of the ‘wash up’ process, which fast tracks through uncontroversial agreed law reforms before Parliament is dissolved. By my understanding therefore, although it would be possible to draft amendments that would expand the scope of the reform, so as to remove ‘parental rights’ in the broader sense that I think many readers are expecting, or which would give some legal aid protection to mother’s dealing with litigation arising from these issues- there is not much realistic potential for the amendment to be adjusted in the course of this Parliament. I might be wrong about that, and if so perhaps Parliamentarians will give some more thought to whether the amendment will completely achieve what it sets out to do, and whether it might be adjusted to achieve those aims more fully.


A quick anticipatory word about sexism: the heading to the amendment references ‘men’ only, which creates an impression that it will only apply to men. However, in fact the heading isn’t relevant – the substance of the amendment is drafted in sex neutral terms (‘person’) and is not limited to male sex offenders. However, the clear intention of the amendment is to protect children from fathers who are sex offenders, no doubt on the basis that the vast majority of sex offenders are (biologically) male, and in reality the reform is most likely to apply in practice to men, and to be relied upon by mothers. If a mother were convicted of a relevant sex offence my understanding is that this reform would apply equally to her. Although there are some legal differences between mothers and fathers when it comes to PR (all mothers have automatic PR which can’t be removed except through adoption, whether married or not) those differences don’t have any impact on this amendment.



Important note for non-legal readers:


The Harman amendment is not yet law. It is likely to become law by the end of 2024, but at the time I’m writing this post it is not possible to say whether it will be amended before it is passed, or indeed to confirm with certainty that it will pass at all.


Update 10 May 2024

Shortly after I posted this a related post was published by one of the team at The Transparency Project. That explained about some related amendments that were also being discussed in Parliament. I had intended to pop an update on this post to link through to that additional context – but failed to do so. However, you can read that post here: ‘Paedophiles to be stripped of parental rights’? and other failed legislative amendments.

Anyway, I was prompted into remembering by this announcement from the Ministry of Justice ‘Child rapists to automatically have parental responsibility stripped’.

As best I can tell without spending more time cross referencing bills and amendments than I have to devote to the exercise, the ‘amendment tabled today’ [10 May] is actually an amendment in the Amendment paper relating to the Criminal Justice Bill for Monday 13 May, which you can read here. The corresponding / preceding paper dated 10 May still contains Harriet Harman’s amendment as described above. The 13 May document has a set of amendments which create a new s10A Children Act and amend another bill in Parliament (Victims and Justice Bill). This set of amendments are in some respects broader than the Harman amendment (they also encompass a restriction on PR where a parent kills another), but in others narrower (the restriction on PR is only for a more limited set of sexual offences and only in respect of some children), and the mechanism for restricting PR is less straightforward.

It’s beyond my knowledge and understanding how the two sets of amendments interrelate, but I can’t see both will go through, and assume the latter amendments announced today will take priority and the Harman amendment will fall away. IF that is the case, I *think* that the replacement amendments do not remove PR as much as they restrict its exercise (by getting the Crown Court to make a Prohibited Steps Order. I don’t think that is the same thing at all, because a parent does not need to exercise PR in order to be entitled to certain treatment (for example notice of proceedings, right to be consulted, consent to adoption). I don’t really have the headspace or time to properly analyse the wording, but I think that the legal effect of this mechanism is probably quite different. Neither of the amendments stop a father from applying for contact, regardless of PR, but (as I suggested above) the power of the family court to make orders under s91(14) could be used. However, it can’t be used without an application having first been made (i.e. it can’t stop the first application before it happens) and a s91(14) order doesn’t deal with situations where a parent is notified as a respondent or potential respondent to proceedings (for example care, placement or adoption proceedings).

Anyway, much to think about and chew over. But I will leave it to others to work this through for now – I will dedicate some more energy to unpicking it all once we are completely clear what amendments are approved by Parliament. At the moment it is too much of a moving target to tackle.

Please don’t confuse your ‘usual practice’ with my actual reading of the actual rules

Alright you slackers, it’s time for some law. Mainly because I have had a bunch of browser windows open with ‘new’ judgments open, ready for me to write them up and I can’t tick them off my to do list until I do. I could just close the browser windows but that would be cheating. So, here is judgment number 1.

In Re T (Adoption Hearing: Involvement of Applicants) [2024] EWCA Civ 189 the Court of Appeal corrected an erroneous practice in Cornwall relating to adoption hearings. The appeal judges thought (and I agree – for what that’s worth) that this was probably not confined to Cornwall, much as other creative interpretations of other procedural requirements have turned out to be widespread in other cases (think the Somerset cases about adoption regulations and medicals a few years ago – very much not confined to Somerset, and in fact there were variations on the theme in a number of counties which were revealed and corrected only when others got wind of the Somerset case).

Here, the issue was around the attendance of adoption applicants (the wannabe adoptive parents) at adoption hearings. 99 times out of 100 they don’t want to come. But they do sometimes want and need to attend, most often in my experience where something has gone awry with the application itself – I’ve been involved in about four in recent years. Anyway, in straightforward adoption applications there is almost never a need to have adopters at court, and they usually don’t want to come, preferring instead to be kept up to date via the local authority and to come to the symbolic celebration once the order has been made final. Given that adopters attending a hearing which parents may also attend brings with it certain logistical and emotional challenges, usually everyone is quite happy for that to be the position, including the judge and court staff. It is of course super important in most adoption cases for the parties not to bump into one another and for the identity of the adopters to be kept strictly confidential. Where adopters do attend, this usually but not always involves screens or video links and pseudonyms.

This case unpicks the problems arising from the ‘what usually happens’ becoming transmogrified into a fixed and rigid practice, which didn’t actually comply with the rules. It came to light when a pesky adopter decided he did want to attend (partly so he could later tell the child he had been there) and was told by court staff that he couldn’t. He persisted and was told again that he couldn’t come – this time by the Designated Family Judge who said ‘The prospective adopters are not permitted to attend the adoption hearing. This is usual practice’, and later that his reason for wishing to attend was no ‘a valid one’, and that was that.

When the hearing was adjourned he wasn’t given notice of the next hearing or sent the order. When he enquired of the local authority legal department what had led to the adjournment, he was told that the local authority had been represented by a solicitor, who was not a member of the authority’s legal department, and who had made no note of the hearing. That is pretty poor – the court of appeal describe it as a ‘serious failure’. The local authority were entitled to expect a note and they should have demanded it from the solicitor they instructed.

As a result of this serious failure, poor old Mr Adopter then had to apply for a transcript. Guess what? Court said no. It sounds as if Mr Adopter gave up trying to attend the hearings, as the adoption did eventually go through in his absence. But he did appeal the refusal of a transcript.

The judgment on appeal makes clear that pretty much everything the adopter was told abut what he was not allowed to do / not entitled to was wrong. He was a party – in fact the applicant. He didn’t have to attend the hearing – as long as the court excused him (Which for reasons explained above the court usually does) – but he was entitled to do so if he wanted, which he did. All of this is set out in FPR 14 (all detailed in the judgment). It was  ‘no surprise [to the Court of Appeal bearing in mind Article 6] that the statute and the court rules do not afford any power to the court to prohibit the applicant in adoption proceedings from attending a hearing of their adoption application.’ The adopter should have had notice and should have been permitted to attend. Appropriate arrangements should have been made for him to do so, for example the court suggested he could have attended remotely with camera and mic off.

Through this appeal the Court of Appeal spotted a glitch in the associated guidance (President’s Guidance: Listing Final Hearings in Adoption Cases, issued by Sir James Munby on 10 April 2018) which will now be corrected:

‘at paragraph 19, that when a ‘need not attend’ direction is made under r 14.16(7) ‘any notice of hearing issued by the court must state clearly that the applicant or the child, as the case may be, should not attend’, is not supported by any statutory provision. Insofar as the guidance suggests that the court has a general power to prohibit an adoption applicant from attending the hearing of their adoption application, it is in error and made without authority.’

Transcripts are dealt with elsewhere in the rules (FPR 27.9) – a party is entitled to a transcript. The court can, if justified, direct that this general rule should be disapplied and refuse a transcript, and the Court of Appeal helpfully summarises why:

‘The difference between the two provisions might be explained by the need for the Family Court to retain some control over the provision of transcripts in part because most of its proceedings are held in private and, in part, regrettably because of the nature of the content of transcripts in some cases involving abuse.’

Here the adopter didn’t need permission to obtain a transcript. No reason was given for the judges’ decision that he shouldn’t be provided with a transcript. Thirdly, the order of the adjourned hearing was no substitute for a transcript because it didn’t make clear why the hearing was adjourned – given the lack of any attendance note a transcript was the only way of finding out. Finally, given that the court had (wrongly) refused to allow the adopter to attend a hearing in his own application the least it could do was facilitate his request for a transcript. That’s my paraphrase – the court’s wording is slightly less pointed:

‘Further, it must a fortiori be the case that, where the court has prevented a party from attending a hearing and that party requests a transcript of the hearing, the request should be granted unless there are clear and specific reasons for refusal.’

Paragraph 35 sums up the potentially wider cultural context

‘If the professional approach, by local authorities, the judiciary and court staff, has developed to the point where prospective adopters are being actively discouraged from attending hearings in their own adoption application, that is a matter of concern. It is also concerning that, as we were told, some courts, as in this case, treat the local authority as the de facto applicant, with the result that, as this appellant experienced, the court does not seek to engage with the applicant by giving notice of hearings or serving copies of orders. Rare though it may currently be, to my mind, this appellant’s wish to be present (physically or remotely) during the hearings is an entirely understandable one. In terms of ‘life-story’ information, attendance at these court hearings may be the only first-hand experience an adopter will have of the birth parents. Also, the importance that this applicant attached to being able to say to his child in years to come that he had been to the court hearings is easy to understand. Given the life-changing nature of the proceedings for all involved, one might ask, rhetorically, why any adopter would not want to attend the hearings of their own application, provided suitable and safe arrangements are made to protect anonymity. I would urge each local adoption centre to review its current practice. In addition, I intend to invite Mrs Justice Judd, as chair of the President’s Public Law Working Group, to conduct a review of the 2018 President’s Guidance.’

Until that guidance is amended, parties / legal reps can refer court staff / judges to paragraph 36 of the judgment in this case for confirmation that the relevant paragraphs of it should not be followed.

Anyway, this judgment is, I think, a useful reminder of the dangers of slipping from ‘usual practice’ into something everyone believes must more or less represent what is in the rules because we’ve always done it this way and someone must have got it from somewhere, right? It is a reminder of why it is important to check the actual rules – and for lawyers / parties to refer both court staff and judges to the applicable provision, in case they have confused what they usually do with the actual rules and requirements. The common feature of these ‘oops, we didn’t actually check – we just always do it this way’ c*ck ups, is how surprisingly far from mandatory requirements and basic fairness they can often be – the judgments make painful reading because it is clear that what should have been obvious has been collectively missed, and that the simple if tedious task of checking the rules / regulations that are designed to keep things orderly, efficient and just would have stopped the error before it was even made. Never ever assume someone else has read the rules. Often they haven’t. Mr adopter – who was an impressive litigant in person, had read the rules. Well done him.

Right, that’s one browser window down, and quite a few to go…

What are we doing with our lives?

I’ve been cautious about posting anything recently. My head is awl of a muddle and I may say something I will later regret. But I’ve got itchy fingers and am sitting quietly at home with nobody to distract me, so…

I should be at work this week. In fact I should be in the middle of week one of three. I am (now) glad that I’m not, but this time last week I was frankly very, very cross. Not cross at anyone in particular, except possibly myself. But really hacked off at the job and the nonsense it involves.

I wasn’t feeling very rational about it last week, so resisted the urge to do a bit of keyboard warrioring until I’d slept on it. A few times. But there is a rump of residual frustration still with me that I am pretty sure is nothing to do with my current grief induced irrationality.

This. Bloody. Job. Sucks. As Dickens almost certainly wrote in Bleak house: it is the best of jobs. And it is the worst of jobs.

When mum died I was in the middle of prepping for the 3 week trial. There was a constant flow of new disclosure and documents and questions to be drafted for vulnerable witnesses. I had to make a decision within days as to whether I should carry on or pull out. I agonised and oscillated, tried to be realistic about how I felt, how I might feel, whether I could really give what I needed to the case whilst grieving, what was best for my client, the interests of justice. Tried to work out where the funeral might fall in the witness schedule. I consulted the code of conduct, my learned junior, my family.

Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that I could do it and therefore (according to the code and my conscience) I must do it. So on we pressed. Working like beasts to catch up with the days lost in the shock of it all. I did no more and no less than I felt obligated to do. I rationalised that it would do me good to keep working for now, and to know that I could take a breather after the trial concluded. It was going to be more full on that was ideal, but it was better than being at home wallowing and worrying about money. And once the decision was made there was nothing for it but to crack on. And to keep plugging away in order to be ready. No turning back so close to trial – if I bailed it would jeopardise my client or the whole trial.

And then after ten days of non-stop prep (well, not completely non-stop – there were long periods of weeping and staring blankly in between bouts of productivity), less than a week before the trial start date and about an hour after we submitted our pre-trial drafting, an email arrived out of the blue telling us the trial had been pulled. Nobody’s fault, but it sent me into a spin. I wasn’t the only one to be shocked, cross and upset. Everyone else had been working on the case, banking on it going ahead (both professional and of course the family). But I was furious.

What the hell had I been DOING for the last two weeks? When I should have been grieving, looking after my family, looking after myself? Selecting the date of my mother’s funeral at least in part to accommodate the trial. It was such a punch in the gut that you give everything for this job, that you have respect for the importance of the role – and yet is sucks you in and spits you out. The job doesn’t give a shit. I felt angry and I felt guilty and I felt stupid.

So, ten days after my mother died, the structure I had around me to prop me up disintegrated before my eyes. The ‘plan’ (terrible plan, if I’m honest) I had to survive until week 3 and take a month off, at least secure in the knowledge I would not have to worry about money for a bit – gone. The distraction of work that had been keeping me going – gone. I was left with anger, grief and worry about money (we always worry about money at the bar). Because of course we don’t get paid for any of the prep work, we only get paid for the trial, if and when it happens. When you are worn out and your resilience is low this stuff hits hard.

Very obviously, a large proportion of these feelings are born of my own very particular current circumstances. But it is really just an extreme example of how much we give to this job and how utterly bananas it really is. We can’t pick and choose when to honour our commitments. We take them seriously. We plan meticulously to ensure we can do our job fully and well for each client whilst also having some sort of life. But stuff happens and we find we have either too much work or not enough. Or, that we have done a lot of work we won’t ever get paid for. I am of course not complaining about my income or about working hard. I get paid well overall. I am simply observing that along with the income and the ‘freedom’ of self employment comes a good deal of risk and financial uncertainty. Sometimes an unexpected diary collapse is something you can seize as an opportunity for a bit of fun or recuperation – but sometimes it’s just frankly a bit pants.

Of course, I know you are probably reading this and wondering if I am really completely nuts, because surely this is a blessing in disguise? And after a week off I can see that perspective. I really needed some time off. Funeral planning is surprisingly time consuming. And grief is a sneaky little bastard. It creeps up on you at the strangest moments.

But that really isn’t the point of this post. It’s the more universal issues illustrated by this painful example. This is peak frustration following 20 years of shifting sands, of trying to plan and manage workload, wellbeing, family commitments and finances when the goalposts are constantly moving. It’s a chronic, grinding lack of control over my own life. And it never goes away. The job is like a complicated spouse: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Every so often you need a break. Of course it isn’t just me – across the jurisdiction other barristers are juggling the pressures of trial (or trial collapse) with ill health, financial distress, personal or family crises, bereavement. Mostly on their own without complaint. Others will see echoes, I’m sure, of what I’m trying to wrestle with in this post. I don’t have any answers, but I see you.

Anyway, I’m off work now. I suppose it won’t seem like it after reading this post, but I am focusing on more important stuff than the ruddy job. And I don’t feel a tiny bit guilty. I can only look after my clients if I also look after myself.


A post script in anticipation of the comments I know I will get:

Firstly – You may think I am a completely self absorbed egotist, but no, I’m not oblivious to the impact on the parties (including children) of short notice adjournments (and of this one specifically), but that is simply not the subject of this post, and in any event it would be inappropriate to discuss the case or the parties here.

Secondly – Yes, I realise I don’t have to do this job. I’m sure your violin is very tiny, but all I’m really trying to do is articulate some of the weirdness of this job, and one aspect of how it impacts us as human beings, and how it ripples outwards into our lives and the lives of our families.