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STATISTICS issued from the Lord Chancellor's Department last month show that the number of divorces in England is down by 4.6 per cent and in Wales by 6.8 per cent. But the family department of Welsh firm Hugh James Jones and Jenkins, which now totals 17 family fee earners (see table), has seen little evidence of this in its day-to-day practice.
The firm was formed in 1960 and has seven offices in Wales, each of which has a family law presence. The largest departments are in the Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil offices.
Head of family law Mark Powell explains that the practitioners are divided generally into those who specialise in child care law - he is organising the Law Society's national child care conference to be held in Cardiff in September - and those who specialise in the wider matrimonial side, such as divorce and domestic violence.
The firm launched its 'domestic violence 24-hour helpline' last December, which is the first of its type in Wales. Associate Debbie Richards explains that the idea for the helpline grew out of past and continuing relationships with women's refuges. She comments that the high response to the helpline may be due to the fact that "the legal profession has changed and lawyers are seen as much more approachable and sympathetic to people's problems".
She has received inquiries from women solicitors groups and other family firms. She considers that, ideally, those experienced in family law should be involved in such initiatives, particularly in relation to domestic violence, "where you don't have time to look it up in a book".
Matthew Phipps, an employed barrister with Eversheds Phillips & Buck in Cardiff, agrees. He says the helpline is "a good idea, as family law is often an emergency area, where clients need access to advice between the hours of 5.30pm and 8.30am".
Phipps says that although his firm and the other larger firms in Cardiff lean more towards the business community, with family work as an ad hoc service to those clients, Hugh James combines the qualities of both a high street practice and a pure commercial practice.
He adds that the legal community in Cardiff is like a
village, and his own dealings with Hugh James have been "very good. We all argue like fury, which is in the nature of this area of work - but in an amicable manner."
Powell says that the expansion of the firm to meet the increase in work has been happening at a time when some of the larger firms are no longer doing legal aid matrimonial work, and family work generally, and the increase in solicitors appearing in court themselves rather than instructing barristers.
He admits that the firm being regarded as a family law practice "effectively crept up on us, but we now have a family department that we are proud of". He believes the firm will continue to grow as the work increases. And despite the Lord Chancellor's statistics, Powell says that he does not want to be "gloomy", but the firm has seen little sign of this work decreasing.