Family Law focuses on finding solutions to issues relating to often complex legal relationships. These include marriage and parenthood among others. For this reason, family law practice can involve work with varying groups from children to the elderly and any others in between. Because family law relates to some very personal aspects of a client’s life, it can be one of the most emotive areas of law to practice.
At degree level, family law often comprises an elective module in the final year of a student’s LLB degree. Modules can vary by university and may include a sociological look at the way society views family as well as a specific focus on the law’s practical application.
Family Law Topics
Family Law is incredibly diverse. This means that the topics studied at one institution are often different from those studied at another.
Most modules will feature some core topics (such as marriage, divorce and children) as well as others which will be more specifically linked to the professors’ areas of expertise.
- Divorce, dissolution and financial separation
- Children, parentage, residence, contact and parental responsibility. This may also include adoption, surrogacy, child abduction and even abuse/neglect
- Children’s Rights (taking into consideration a child’s ability to make their own decisions)
- Domestic Abuse
- Domestic obligations towards families under International Treaties such as the ECHR
- Socio-legal Family Law: a more general look at what society defines family as and whether the law has adequately responded to modern societal views. Examples include the law of parentage in the context of a rise in same-sex couples
- Family law and the State. This includes the role of agencies and local authorities in childcare and protection
How to Become a Family Lawyer
To become a family lawyer, you must demonstrate certain personal characteristics and relevant work experience. You’ll also have to indicate your passion for the subject.
Is it for Me?
A career in family law may require working with both adults and children, so you must be prepared for client-facing work. These children and adults may find themselves in distressing situations, and so you muse be able to cope in those scenarios.
It also helps if you have a passion for helping people and want to work on handling relationships and interacting with your clients. Your work as a family lawyer will vary hugely from that of a tax lawyer, for example. It is also important to be able to detach yourself from the client and their problems on a personal level, as you must always stay professional.
What Work Experience Do I need?
If you are looking to go into a career in family law, some impressive work experience includes:
- Completing a vacation scheme or formal work experience at a firm that specialises in family law
- Completing a mini pupillage that allows you to shadow a barrister working on a family law case
- Marshalling (shadowing) a judge that is sitting on a family law case
- Entering/winning prizes in family law essay competitions at university, showing your interest in the field
- Taking part in family pro bono work in legal clinics
What Does a Family Lawyer Do?
Family Lawyers exist to help clients understand their position and resolve any issues relating to any particular familial arrangement. They can draft pre-nuptial agreements before marriage to protect someone’s financial interests, advise on the grounds of divorce or civil partnership dissolution and draft separation agreements.
Family lawyers can also advise on reasonable financial settlements following divorce and make sure assets are divided reasonably and fairly between parties.
Regarding children, family lawyers negotiate arrangements such as contact, residence and access. They also facilitate the resolution of specific issues in a child’s upbringing such as who has parental responsibility to make certain decisions regarding the child.
Family lawyers are best placed to make applications for any court orders which might be relevant to the case they are working on. If no settlement can be made, a family lawyer can also help clients through the in-court process.
On a day-to-day basis, a family lawyer might have to:
- Attend meetings with clients
- Research similar previous cases to the ones they are working on
- Analyse points of law
- Draft legal documents, such as witness statements
- Investigate and evaluate evidence that might be beneficial for their clients
- Negotiate with opposition to reach a settlement agreement
- File applications in the family court
- Meet with barristers to discuss matters going to trial
- Attend hearings in court before a judge or jury
Private Family Law
Private Family Law cases are those brought forward by individuals. These generally include divorce, civil partnership dissolution and private disputes concerning children.
Additionally, they can involve matters such as financial applications, special guardianship orders and orders under s8 of the Children Act 1989 to decide a child’s primary residence, parental contact and other specific disputes.
On the other hand, Public Family Law cases are those brought forward by local authorities or an authorized person such as the NSPCC to protect the child.
These can include matters such as care orders regarding a child’s parental responsibility, supervision orders to put a child under the supervision of the local authority and emergency protection orders which ensure a child’s immediate safety.
Family Law Arbitration
Arbitration is an out-of-court process and an alternative way to resolve disputes. It is private, confidential and carried out by a trained arbitrator.
More often nowadays, family law practice includes a commitment to offering alternative dispute resolution such as arbitration to avoid resorting to potentially stressful court action. Some family lawyers may even have trained as mediators or arbitrators to be able to provide such services to their clients
During family law arbitration, parties enter into an agreement under which they allow the arbitrator to adjudicate a dispute regarding finances or children following a relationship breakdown. They agree to be bound by the reasoned written decision of the arbitrator.
Arbitration is often described as faster and more flexible than formal court decision making. Due to this, it is often more cost-effective than court.
However, arbitration is not suitable for everyone. For example, if one party may attempt to hide assets or if one of the parties is in fear of the other or is particularly vulnerable, arbitration may not be suitable.
Family Law Act 1996
The Family Law Act (FLA) is an Act of Parliament governing divorce law and marriage. It was brought into force in 1996. The purpose of the act was to modernise the divorce process whilst moving forward with a general goal of saving marriages and making divorce more peaceful.
Before its implementation, the new divorce procedure under this act which included compulsory information meetings before divorce was tested.
Unfortunately, despite seemingly advantageous goals, the FLA 1996 was not well received in pilot studies. For that reason, up until the governments’ recent commitment to implementing “no-fault divorce”, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 continued to contain the relevant provisions regarding divorce.