If you are involved in family court proceedings it is imperative that you understand the different sources of family legal help, advice, and support on offer.
‘You need to seek legal advice’ is often a scary sentence to be the receiver of. Your separated spouse may have served you court documents urging you to get legal assistance from a qualified lawyer/family solicitor. Despite the scaremonger it is always useful and recommended that you obtain some form of advice from an expert. However, it is not required or always necessary to be a solicitor. You are entitled to file your own court applications and attend a hearing without a solicitor by your side. Being involved in court proceedings without legal counsel is referred to as acting as Litigant in Person.
However, family legal help in terms of a solicitor is good place to start. Many offer 30min free consultations. A solicitor may also consult with a specialist barrister pre court. They know the courts better than anyone. I would always recommend having a barrister to represent you in court although a solicitor can also do the job. My personal choice would be a barrister.
You can bypass the family legal help (solicitor) and contact a barrister directly. Look up the Bar Council under useful contacts for further details. The main difference between a solicitor and a barrister is how they are regulated. The latter follows the Bar Standards Boards whilst solicitors follow the Solicitors Regulation Authority but they both must follow a code of conduct as set out by their specific boards of authority. Barristers tend to have more experience with every day court scenarios and are often familiar with the judges meaning they can better pre-empt how to adapt your case to the specific judges expectations and views.
The following is a useful guide detailing organisations which can assist you when looking for a solicitor or a barrister:
Legal aid Agency – 0345 345 4 345
The Law Society (to find a solicitor) – www.lawsociety.org.uk/find-a-solicitor/
Resolution (to find a family lawyer) – 01689 820272 – www.resolution.org.uk/
Bar Council (to find a barrister) – 020 7611 1472 – www.barcouncil.org.uk
Bar Council’s guide “Representing yourself in court” – www.barcouncil.org.uk/instructing-a-barrister/representing-yourself-in-court/
Solicitors Regulation Authority – 0370 606 2555 – www.sra.org.uk/
Bar Standards Board – 020 7611 1444 – www.barstandardsboard.org.uk
Citizens Advice Bureau – www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/getadvice.htm
Law Centres Network – 020 7749 9120 – www.lawcentres.org.uk/
Advocate – www.weareadvocate.org.uk
FLOWS (RCJ Advice) – www.flows.org.uk – 0203 745 7707
Family Rights Group (for advice on involvement of children services or local authority) – 0808 801 0366
Coram Children’s Legal Centre (for advice on the law relating to family) – 0300 330 5480 – www.childlawadvice.org.uk
Shelter (for advice on housing and homelessness) – 0808 800 4444
Maternity Action – 0845 600 85 33
Personal Support Unit (PSU) – 020 7947 7701 – www.thepsu.org/
Court proceedings and Legal Aid; Legal Aid was mostly abolished in 2012 with the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo). It reduced legal aid spending by £350 million. Hence the family courts have had an influx of Litigants in Person representing themselves. About 80% of cases are today see at least one side showing up without legal counsel being LiP. In some cases, you can get your application fees covered by legal aid, especially if your monthly income is below the set threshold.
When anticipating how much your divorce proceedings are likely to cost, solicitors either charge by hour or a fixed fee. It may be that you do most of the work yourself whilst the solicitor does the critical documents. Your lawyer should be able to give you a number of anticipated hours but it is more often than not difficult as each case develops and progress differently.
If you are not eligible for legal aid and you really can not afford to hire a solicitor there are places where you can obtain some free advice. Any work relating to court proceedings is time consuming and it is perhaps easier once you understand the type of diligence required, to understand why solicitor fees are high. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau is a good place to start your research although I find their advice limited. If you can locate a local Law Centre which are scattered across England and Wales, they are very helpful in terms of case work and representation.
Advocate is a charity that helps litigants in person to find legal guidance from barristers that do pro bono work.
One source of guidance and legal support which is yet to be fully discovered and recognised is your local or national trusted McKenzie friend. You can take a non-legal qualified person with you into court for support. It can be your neighbour or a fee charging professional McKenzie Friend. They are easy to find online by doing a search for ‘McKenzie Friend near me’. Often, they are familiar with the court process as many offer this unique divorce service as a full-time business and therefore attend hearings with private clients on a regular basis. You will need to ask the courts for permission if you choose to work with a McKenzie Friend. This is an easy and straight forward process and already recognised in the family law community. Unless for some compelling reason the judge refuses his/her attendance, it is rare for such a request to be denied.
On a final note, the family legal help area is a complex field and changes are being introduced consistently. To get up-to-date independent legal advice it is always worth discussing your situation with an informed family law expert who can point you in the right direction. Once you know the direction you are heading, it is much easier to navigate your way out of the void.