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Family law then and now

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I have spent the last 30 years working only as a divorce lawyer. Before then I regularly handled commercial litigation, some of it international, and I had become accustomed to the tough cut and thrust that came with taking on lawyers worldwide. It wasn’t easy; in fact it was extremely stressful, but commercial lawyers aren’t paid to have feelings. They are paid to win.

After my son was born in 1988, however, I had to juggle work with my new responsibility as a mother. Something had to give! I could no longer travel as before, I couldn’t go to court as much, and I had the responsibility of an office to run – as well as a young baby, a husband and a home to look after. At the same time, perhaps because I had become a parent, I found that I was becoming more involved with family law cases. It is a fascinating area of the law, involving real people with real problems, and I slowly realised that I was well suited to it. I immersed myself in family law. I also read widely around the subject, because I genuinely wanted to help. I wanted my clients to be happy and move on from the despair of marital breakdown.

I also believe that motherhood provided me with revealing insights into the real-life ups and downs of being a parent and managing family relationships when wholly dependent children were involved. I discovered that life was far from easy, and so I decided to advise my clients from my own perspective: “There but for the grace of… go us all”.

It is a fact that life never goes to plan. There are always surprises waiting for us, some happy, some sad. All of us, without exception, will experience the ups and downs of life. But how do we handle them? That is what is important.

The years have since passed by in a flash – and thousands of clients have passed through the doors at Stowe Family Law. I have learned a lot from what I have seen and experienced as a divorce lawyer.

The worst changes to my work that I have experienced have all occurred recently. When I began to practice, all my clients had access to a lawyer. The poorest paid nothing, because legal aid was free. “Mid-range” clients were still able to secure legal aid, but made contributions. Everybody had access to a lawyer and therefore everybody had access to family law, which was designed to be administered by lawyers and adjudicated by judges.

Times have now changed so much, that hundreds of thousands of people can no longer have access to a lawyer. Instead, they must try and access justice on their own. Family law legal aid has been all but destroyed and I consider this to be a shocking and shameful indictment of our society. At the time of writing, the Government is doing its best to help its citizens help themselves to family law – but its efforts are lame and limp, and its guidance is flimsy.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Vincent McGovern. says:

    Strongly as I agree with you Ms Stowe where the pitfalls and problems of life and especially family life are concerned I equally strongly disagree with you that lawyers are the solution to the myriad problems associated with family breakdown. The MOJ itself in its research demonstrated that cases without lawyers arrived at a conclusion quicker than those with. And now with the designed discrimination based on gender where only females have access to legal aid, the sick parody continues.

    As Chair of two branches of a shared parenting charity and a part time McKenzie I share the view held by many children’s therapists and psychologists which is that the presence of lawyers in family breakdown is the equivalent of the fire brigade pouring petrol on a housefire. As for professionalism among the family services, after 5 Ombudsman investigations incl 3 PHSO and Legal Services Ombudsman against the SRA, the absence of child centered professionalism is dominant and makes a mockery of the Paramountcy Principle where children are concerned.

    That said your written blogs are well ahead of the guest who writes on your blog. His automatic support for psuedo professionals profiting from the misery of family breakdown is most miserable indeed. But at least you and he are prepared to put your head above the parapet and state your opinion. And that has my respect.

  2. Adrian Berkeley says:

    I totally agree with Vincent – and similarly I know and empathise exactly with Marilyn. Unfortunately, the system is broken, however as professionals it’s our jobs to guide the client towards making the best of a broken system.

    It is unfortunately not within our (individual) hands to fix the system. And to be honest, I, for one, would not know how to improve it! The last Family Law rule or statute that I agree fully worked as intended, was the Children Act 1989. Not perfect but certainly an improvement on what was there before.

    Final straw for me that made me give up (voluntarily) Practise as a solicitor was the (almost complete) abolition of Legal Aid.

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