The most fun a silk can have
17 September 1996
An aptitude for Latin at school is what led Elizabeth Lawson into law. It was the only subject she was good at, and her teacher had said that the only profession it was really any use for is law. Lawson adds: "That is quite untrue, of course."
She also explains that one of the reasons why she chose the Bar rather than the solicitor's side of the profession "is probably a sign of the actor manque". She admits there are aspects of a solicitor's job for which she is "temperamentally less suited".
Lawson joined Cloisters as a pupil in 1969, and took silk in 1989. Her specialisation in family law was more fortuitous timing than conscious decision, when a former pupilmaster left to set up her own chambers.
As a result, Lawson found herself doing more family work, which she finds highly satisfying because "in family cases, the outcome always matters more to the people you are acting for. That is not necessarily true of a lot of civil work, although it is of crime."
She adds: "There is also an essential difference in family law advocacy because the parties do not go away and never see each other again, but often have to have a continuing relationship through, for example, their children." She also admits that she is "totally squeamish about hands being mangled in bits of machinery" which precludes the personal injury/medical negligence Bar option.
Her practice at the family Bar is a success. She was elected chair of the Family Law Bar Association in September 1995 and has another year in office.
The FLBA has advanced rapidly since it was merely part of the probate, divorce and admiralty Bar - or "wills, wives and wrecks", as Lawson describes it - after its creation during the Second World War. It now has around 1,400 members in England and Wales, and is, according to Lawson, "probably the best-organised of any of the specialist Bar associations in terms of having, for example, a proper regional structure". She credits her predecessor James Holman with this.
The FLBA has also been exercised more recently by legislation affecting family law practice. It and other bodies, such as the Solicitors Family Law Association, have made representations concerning both this and recent proposals regarding legal aid, but often to little effect. Lawson cites the Child Support Act as being "fundamentally flawed. A formula is applied to all, regardless of the individual circumstances, and it is in essence a money-saving measure. The FLBA and others made representations, such as setting up a pilot scheme to test the practicality, which were largely ignored."
Lawson also believes there was no particular public pressure for reform of the divorce law, other than a concern that the UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe. She considers that it is "not necessarily a result of the divorce law, but more to do with social factors. The Government's proposals put forward two options, either a return to a fault-based system or a reform to an entirely non-fault based system. The FLBA as an association opposed what ended up as another compromise under the new Family Law Act replacing what was, under the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, already a compromise."
With the recent legal aid proposals by the Lord Chancellor's Department as well as the increase in solicitors and solicitor-advocates doing more work themselves rather than instructing the Bar, Lawson's concerns are that there is "room for improvement in terms of the quality of the advocacy", and that the junior Bar will need a private income to survive.
She adds: "More family law work is legally-aided, so there is a bigger problem for family law barristers if there are cutbacks or restrictions. But the Bar has been written off many times before. It will inevitably get work from changes in the law that the Bar and solicitors did nothing at all to promote, but that were promoted by those who wanted to drag in fault by the back door." She adds that she was tempted to write a thank you letter to Daily Mail readers for the extra work that may result.
With the continuing task of the FLBA is to make representations to the Government and with Lawson in the chair for another year, she says that she does not see her future on the bench - yet. She spends 20 days a year sitting as a deputy high court judge and a deputy district judge in the Family Division, and says: "Being a silk at the independent Bar is probably the most fun that anyone can have, not just at the family Bar, but generally. The Bar is one of few professions where you actually spend most of your time doing what you were trained to do."
She says that if she were Lord Chancellor she would get rid of the Child Support Act, but then adds with a smile that, with all the political considerations, it would be better to be a dictator. Quod erat demonstrandum.