Top Tips for Family Law Pupils

3 Mar 2023

I started pupillage at One Pump Court determined to learn and the four months I spent in the family team were a steep learning curve.

During my family seat, I observed a range of different matters, including public and private children law, financial remedies, and non-molestation orders. I shadowed members of chambers in various types of hearings, such as case management hearings, fact-finding hearings, final hearings, dispute resolution appointments (known as DRAs) and enforcement hearings.

I spent most days in courts – usually in one of the London-based family courts: Central Family court, East London family court, Barnet County Court or Croydon combined courts. Spending the majority of my time in court allowed me to meet an array of advocates – both solicitors and barristers from various firms and chambers. I observed a wide range of advocacy styles and built a network of experienced family practitioners – many of whom encouraged me to keep in touch during second six and beyond. I also had the opportunity to network with Solicitors and Trainee Solicitors who will hopefully keep me in mind when I start taking on my own cases.

As a pupil, I tried to fade into the background and not be heard or seen. However, I quickly realised that, whilst I wasn’t qualified to give advice, lay clients in the family courts often appreciated and felt comforted by my presence. What I wasn’t able to offer in terms of legal advice, I made up for with light-hearted conversation and moral support. I feel the need to caveat this by saying that this should not be done in such a way that undermines your supervisor’s time with their client, or that crosses any professional boundaries. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for many clients being in court – often for the first time – with such high stakes. Having someone there in the room with whom they can share reassuring glances and who can sit with them in the courtroom can make all the difference.

Whilst I couldn’t advise clients directly, I did actively seek out opportunities to draft documents. In family law, the key types of documents you are expected to draft are:

  1. Position statements. As it says on the tin, positions statements are documents setting out each party’s position, drafted by counsel or a legal representative, to be filed with the court and all other parties by 4pm the day before any hearing.
  2. Draft orders. Draft orders, which set out any directions made by the court, are usually drafted by counsel (or legal representative) for the Applicant. However, it is important to note that, in circumstances where an Applicant is unrepresented, counsel will be expected to draft the order. The draft order will then be sent to the court to be sealed.
  3. Written submissions. Sometimes, judges will ask parties to produce written submissions as opposed to delivering oral submissions at the conclusion of the oral evidence (in fact-findings or final hearings). This is a form of written advocacy and requires particular skills. The advocates may jointly produce an agreed note of the law, which counsel then needs to apply to the facts of the case, whilst advancing their client’s position. 
  4. Attendance notes. Attendance notes are drafted for the benefit of instructing solicitors. They set out the hours spent working on the case – including prep time and time spent in court. They also set out the advice given to clients, a summary of the proceedings and the outcome. As a pupil/baby junior, this is a crucial step – to be done promptly after the hearing. In addition to fostering relationships with your instructing solicitors, this largely goes to protecting yourself in the event that a client later wants to raise a grievance.

In light of all of the above, I have summarised the most important lessons I have learned during my family seat:

  1. Know the law.
    For children law, The Children Act 1989 should become your best friend. Practitioners effectively quote it verbatim from memory. For public children’s cases, part 3,4 and 5 (sections 17-52) are key. The threshold test is set out at section 31(2) of the Children Act. For private children’s cases, sections 1 and 9 are key. The key legislations for financial remedies are the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 – depending on whether it is a divorce or dissolution.It’s also important to stay on top of the case law. It’s useful to keep a bank or ‘crib-sheet’ of all the key cases for each issue. For example, the case of H-N (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448  is a key authority for fact-findings, particularly where domestic abuse allegations are made.I have also joined the Family Law Barristers Association (FLBA) which helpfully organises regular seminars and updates on a range of family law topics. It’s a great way to learn from more senior practitioners.
  1. Practise, practise, practise!
    Practise drafting any type of document you can get your hands on as you will need to develop those skills before getting on your feet. Whenever possible, I volunteered to help draft written submissions, position statements, draft orders and attendance notes. Receiving feedback on my written work was invaluable and has greatly contributed to my preparedness for second six.
  1. Know your audience.
    As in every area of law, different types of advocacy will be required for different hearings. In private children law, particularly in FHDRAs and DRAs, there is a lot of outside-of-court negotiation. It’s important to know where to compromise and where to double down.For fact-finding hearings and final hearings, good witness handling is essential, along with persuasive advocacy skills. In particular, you will be required to cross-examine professional witnesses – social workers, Cafcass officers, school teachers, etc… Knowing what level to pitch questions at to get helpful answers is invaluable.Family barristers, maybe more so than other areas, have significant interactions with other counsel and legal representatives. Public law (or ‘care’) cases will include advocates’ meetings ahead of the hearing and pre-court discussions on the day. These meetings require collaboration – in order to narrow the issues and agree the law – whilst each advocate must also maintain their client’s interests and follow their particular instructions.Furthermore, it is important to know your judges. After spending enough time in front of the same rotation of judges in the different London courts, you quickly get a sense of what kind of temperament each judge has and what is and isn’t likely to work. It is worth remembering this and adapting your advocacy style accordingly – where appropriate.
  1. Soft skills are important
    Making the lay client feel comfortable, managing expectations, and explaining things in a clear and accessible way are just as, if not more, important than any advocacy you will be doing. Namely, it is important to be aware of any vulnerabilities a client may have and any special measures they may need – solicitors may not always pick up on this and it’s important to get instructions. Further, there are many Litigants in Person in family courts – so it is important to uphold one’s duty to the court in the administration of justice (Core Duty 1) and ensure that they are fully aware of the court process and their role within it.
  1. Look after your wellbeing
    Being a family barrister often means dealing with very sensitive subject matters (domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect, etc.) Vicarious trauma is an unfortunate side-effect of the role. It is therefore important to have a strong support system – whether that’s friends and family or colleagues in chambers. Thankfully, I have been able to lean on colleagues in chambers and my co-pupil when I have found cases particularly challenging. You will find that everyone has those cases that have an emotional impact and it’s okay, we’re only human.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my family seat and am extremely grateful to my supervisors and colleagues in chambers who have been committed to providing me with the best possible training.

I am excited to start taking instructions in all areas of family law – private children, public children, and financial remedies – from April 2023.

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