2 January 2008
Whats it all about?
Family lawyers deal with a broad range of work involving complex commercial and human issues in a context that is dynamic and often highly charged with conflicting emotions. Sometimes you feel as though you have been asked to carry a tray of crystal through a hurricane.
Advice may be required about pre-nuptial agreements, adoption, on-going relationships between parents and children, residence/contact disputes, child maintenance/support and other children issues such as abduction. Family lawyers also deal with the consequences when relationships breakdown and with the increasingly complex interrelationships within blended families.
People will often call upon family lawyers at a difficult or uncertain time of their lives. The challenge is to explain complex legal issues to anxious and emotional clients while their lives are turning upside down. The job is extremely rewarding and never dull. Client contact is plentiful and lawyers are given real responsibility from the outset.
The working culture
A typical week: on Monday, youre ready to start the week and anticipate ticking off everything on your to do list. On waking youre greeted with a text asking you to come in early to help on an urgent matter. Nothing you wanted to get done gets done. Tuesday, a client calls in a panic: she has been tailed by private investigators and been filmed. You arrange for a criminal lawyer to become involved. You also have to arrange to have a helicopter and jet valued. In the evening you stay late helping to prepare for an upcoming five-day hearing. Wednesday, you draft a Court Order, liaise with the client and her barrister. In the afternoon see a new client and write a letter of advice. Thursday, youre at court out of town. The judge listens to the arguments, makes an order, then the barrister leaves. Subsequently, the couple have a long and emotional discussion; they want to rip the order up. You have to re-draft it and go before the judge to get the new agreement approved. Friday, a client phones who hasnt been allowed to see his baby daughter. You spend much of the day making arrangements to ensure that the mother allows your client to see his daughter for an hour that afternoon and over the coming weekend. You reckon you deserve to leave on time, so head home at 6pm feeling that youve helped to make a real difference in someones life.
Patience, empathy, an ability to listen and a willingness to give often unwelcome advice are essential, as are a good grasp of the law and an ability to remain focussed on the key objectives. A good family lawyer can explain in simple terms sometimes complex legal principles and procedures. Flexibility, imagination and good time management skills also assist.
Divorce cases are often in the news. Recently the Appeal Court decision in the case of John and Beverley Charman grabbed the headlines. After 25 years of marriage the family had assets totalling 131m. Mrs Charman was awarded 48m and Charman v Charman (2007) raised important points of principle for many clients.
Mr Charman argued that a substantial trust set up in 1987 from which he had never benefited should be excluded from the matrimonial pot. Mrs Charman disagreed, saying the trust was a financial resource available to Mr Charman. He maintained that by accepting Mrs Charmans claim against the trust, which had been established and operated legitimately by a professional trustees, the Family Courts were driving a coach and horses through trust structures which were set up to protect family wealth. Notwithstanding this, the Appeal Court accepted that the trust assets would be available to Mr Charman on demand and to exclude them would not have been fair.
Mr Charman also successfully argued the doctrine of special contribution. Section 25(2)(f ) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 requires the Court to take into account the respective contributions of the parties during a marriage, both financial and non-financial. The contribution made by Mr Charman was recognised as being exceptional. To ensure the level of discount was meaningful and not simply a token gesture, the sharp carving knife was considered the appropriate tool when the Court exercised its redistributive powers and not the salami slicer. Hence Mrs Charman only received 36.5 per cent of the matrimonial pot.