Nurturing family law counsel

Family law is developing at a rapid rate and specialists must keep abreast of new legislation, says Andrew McFarlane. Andrew McFarlane is a barrister at 1 King's Bench Walk.

In a recent article, David Bodey QC, the current secretary of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA), drew attention to the fact that the FLBA has now been in existence for some 50 years.

During the last decade FLBA membership has soared so that now the figure is approaching 1,700, making the association by far the largest of the specialist Bar groups.

It is no coincidence that the association's recent hike in membership has run alongside a steady flow of substantial developments in law and procedure. Over the past 20 years lawyers have had to absorb legislative changes across the spectrum of family law, including the recent radical reforms of the Children Act 1989 and the Child Support Act 1991.

On 1 October 1997, part 4 of the Family Law Act 1996 will come into force, with its consequent repeal of the existing domestic violence legislation.

The implementation of the remainder of the Family Law Act 1996 is in prospect, and thereby the reform of the substantive law of divorce and ancillary relief. A draft Adoption Bill remains available on the stocks; and so the process goes on.

The days are long gone when a barrister could dabble in family law as part of a general common law practice. The need to keep up with the law requires the practitioner to concentrate a substantial proportion of his or her time to this field.

A recent trawl of the reported cases relating to children over the past 12 months revealed that at least 90 landmark decisions have been made – in an area that some may feel has “settled down” during the six years that the Children Act has been in force.

In the field of ancillary relief, the family lawyer requires an up-to-date and detailed knowledge of property, commerce, finance, taxation and pensions, which goes far outside the narrow confines of legislation and case law. He or she also has to face two separate systems of procedure at present, which are running side by side at different hearing centres throughout the country. The volume of knowledge now required of any practitioner in family law dictates that he or she must be a dedicated and focused specialist.

There is, however, a different and equally important need for the specialist approach of the family lawyer. In a manner that is unlike any other area of practice, the family practitioner is routinely dealing with clients who are emotionally involved in the matters that are before the court. Family law deals with the very core of the human condition and seeks to adjudicate upon issues affecting the most important relationships in a person's life.

Barristers and solicitors who practise family law are required to develop their own methods of helping the emotionally upset client. It is to be hoped that the experience of the specialist barrister or solicitor does much to lower the emotional stakes, thereby allowing the parties and the court to concentrate on the issues involved in a case in a comparatively civilised manner.

The FLBA seeks to provide for the educational needs of its members, both in London and in the regions, by continuing education seminars and lectures, by the regular dissemination of information, and by its annual weekend conference.

The association represents the views of its members in relation to all relevant areas of the reform of the law and procedure. It serves the whole community of family lawyers by the annual publication of At a Glance. Last, but not always least, it organises extremely nourishing and enjoyable parties.

As the FLBA looks forward to the next 50 years, a range of challenges have to be faced. Consideration of some form of accreditation for family barristers has been a controversial topic for some years following the introduction of the successful solicitors Child Care Panel.

Next year is likely to witness the birth of a family law Bar accreditation scheme, with the consequent need for pract itioners to “qualify” for membership of the scheme and to keep up to date by continuing their education.

A challenge of a more pressing nature arises from the need to strike the balance between the Government's aim of curbing the flow of legal aid funds and the practitioners' right to be adequately remunerated for the provision of a skilled and specialist service. The FLBA, and particularly Roderic Wood QC, have been at the forefront of the Bar's development of proposals for a workable and fair civil legal aid scheme.

As the family law community prepares itself for the implementation of the Family Law Act, the need for specialist family law barristers could not be more clearly defined. The Bar's ability to provide the service that is rightly expected of it will, in no small part, depend upon the continued work and strength of the FLBA.