Seeking higher family values

Clerks in family law chambers deserve a pat on the back: the consensus from family solicitors is that there has been a radical improvement in service from the London family bar in recent times.

Jeremy Levison, of niche family firm Levison Meltzer Pigott, says the family bar has become much more user-friendly. "The clerks are more approachable and worldly-wise than even half a generation ago.

"And now, to a large extent, the two counsel rule has been dropped, so leaders will take a case on their own without the ghastly need to have a junior."

Family solicitor and managing partner of Charles Russell, Grant Howell, agrees that, in terms of service, the family bar in London has improved considerably.

"The family bar had a reputation in the bar generally as being rather old-fashioned. But I find the senior juniors and young silks very modern, very up on IT, and that certainly couldn't be said a few years ago," says Howell.

"Until very recently, the idea of counsel communicating by email was unheard of – you would ask them to draft something and they would send it off to a typing pool in Sussex and come back to you three weeks later.

"The environment has changed. Barristers, just as solicitors, are becoming like the rest of the business world."

Several family solicitors single out 29 Bedford Row Chambers as offering a particularly good service, with efficient clerks and a commercial approach to cases.

One leading family lawyer says: "Four years ago, 29 Bedford Row was seen as definitely below the top couple of sets. Now, although they haven't quite got the leaders, as they really only have Tim Scott, at junior level they are among the top three sets."

"I started using the chambers a couple of years ago and found them astoundingly good. The service is absolutely fantastic, just in a different league to what we had before.

"You can actually get counsel and they turn around stuff really quickly. And they are more likely to settle cases."

The set boasts a string of highly-rated juniors, including Deborah Bangay, Nicholas Francis, Neil Sanders and Robert Peel. However, it was recently hit by the departure of Lucy Stone to rival chambers Queen Elizabeth Building, the chambers of Ian Karsten QC.

Queen Elizabeth Building is exceptionally strong on family law, with leading silk Florence Baron QC, and a host of well-regarded juniors including Lewis Marks, Tim Amos and Elizabeth Clarke.

Of the other sets, solicitors rate family chambers 1 Mitre Court Buildings very highly for its silks, but are divided over its juniors. Some solicitors describe the chambers as at best "solid" at junior level. Others rave about Nigel Dyer and Timothy Bishop, whom they believe are among the most exciting prospects at the family bar.

Solicitors also rate One King's Bench Walk, which houses leading silks Barry Singleton QC and Judith Parker QC, as well as Christopher Pocock and junior junior Philip Marshall, whom solicitors speak of highly.

One Garden Court Family Law Chambers, the chambers of The Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC 1 Gray's Inn Square, and the chambers of Lionel Swift QC 4 Paper Buildings, are said to be particularly strong on child law.

One chambers to watch is 4 Brick Court the chambers of Catherine Nicholes, which has reportedly decided to focus exclusively on family work. The chambers is also believed to be in negotiations to acquire the family law team from Lindsay Burn's Queen Elizabeth Building, although nobody from the set was available to comment on these changes.

Of course, although solicitors are happy about the service they receive from the family bar, a few problems remain. Firstly, there are not enough good barristers to go round.

Louise Spitz, a family partner at Manches, says: "There is a dearth of really outstanding people. The really good ones tend to be terribly busy. During the Picasso case earlier this year, involving a number of good silks and juniors, it was jolly difficult to get conferences and book people for hearings."

Gill Doran, a partner in Withers' family law team, says: "One problem is that the family bar can find themselves desperately overworked, particularly at this time of year.

"I don't know how they do it. They will bend over backwards to help us, but they do have an awful lot to contend with.

"They are not a very big band and everybody is after the same people."

Another issue raised by family practitioners is that some family barristers are overly-aggressive. Beth Wilkins, partner at Pannone & Partners in Manchester, describes the family bar as a curate's egg.

"Looking at the family bar in general, there are a lot of people who do it who in my view ought not to be doing it," she says.

Pannones has blacklisted quite a few barristers because they are too aggressive and display a horrendous lack of sensitivity.

Wilkins says: "They tear into people and cause unnecessary trauma to the family. The scars of their conduct are borne indefinitely."

Manches family partner Richard Sax says he does come across aggressive family barristers when sitting as a deputy judge. "But," he says, "a lot depends on the instructions they are given."

Out in the regions, the provincial family bar gets a much more mixed report. Bournemouth firm Lester Aldridge tends not to use the provincial bar at all for family work, as it believes there are no ancillary relief specialists of high enough quality in the South East.

Associate partner Jane Porter says: "London is much more specialist and better set up in terms of IT."

But further afield, family solicitors do like to instruct the provincial bar. Nigel Shepherd, family partner in Addleshaw Booth & Co's Manchester office, generally uses the Manchester bar for his work but acknowledges that clients often want to go to London for the big money cases.

"There is a perception at the Manchester bar that when you get to about the £5m mark, the work tends to go away from them. The top family law silks are in London, there's no question about that."

Wilkins says she uses the Manchester bar because it is much more convenient. "It's expensive and inconvenient to drag down to London or call London counsel up. We do, but there has to be a special reason."

All over the country there are individual barristers who are highly regarded. Philip Raynor QC and Sonia Gal in Manchester, Paul Isaacs and Eleanor Hamilton QC in Leeds, Christopher Sharp at St John's Chambers in Bristol, and David Hershman at St Philip's Chambers and Julia Macur QC at St Ive's Chambers in Birmingham are just a few examples.

But the common complaint is that the provincial sets cannot offer the strength and depth of expertise to match London chambers.

Wilkins says: "I believe that, in the provinces, family law is not seen as a sexy area of law. If you are doing planning or commercial law, that's sexy and that's where people want to go.

"Family law is seen as a poor relation, and someone has got to be quite brave to specialise in family and hold their head up, even though they can make just as much money in it. A lot of bright people tend to shy away from doing it."

Looking to the future, Howell predicts the emergence of a much slimmer family bar.

"I think there is a clear difference between the experienced bar and the less experienced bar. The experienced family bar performs a very good service and there is undoubtedly going to be a continuing need for those people.

"As for the less experienced bar, I personally wouldn't recommend to anyone I know to become a barrister. The difficulty for a junior junior barrister is this: what can they give to a client that a solicitor can't?"

Howell says the big difference from five years ago is solicitors no longer automatically involve a barrister in a case. "We have to ask, and clients will ask, what added value they can offer?

"So I think the family bar will survive, but slimmed down – it really will be made up of only the best people."