A Thought Leader article published in the December 2017 edition of Lawyer Monthly.
My name is Simon Leach and I am the Managing Director of Family Law Group, a regional law practice specialising in family law. Our firm started in 2005, having previously been the Family Department of a large criminal law firm.
We have specialist solicitors offering expert legal advice across the full range of Family Law matters such as Divorce & Separation, Child Arrangements & Social Services, Care Proceedings, Matrimonial Finance & Property, Mediation, Collaborative Law, Forced Marriage and Domestic Abuse Injunctions.
We now hear from Simon Leach, who says: “The really satisfying part of my job is that I spend a lot of my time helping make people’s lives better and guiding them through difficult times.
“A fundamental part of my work involves agreeing goals with my clients and setting realistic expectations. It is also important that my clients feel valued throughout their journey with my firm.”
As Managing Director, Simon touches on the biggest obstacle family lawyers face and other changes the area of family law would benefit from.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle family lawyers face? As Thought Leader can you think of any changes which could be made in order to solve this issue?
The under-resourcing of the family justice system is the biggest obstacle that we face. The British legal system has always been proud of its ability to provide justice for all, but the current economic climate is now sadly challenging that assumption. As the Courts see more and more litigants in person, and an increased workload as a result, the decline in morale both within the judiciary and Court staff is sadly evident on a daily basis. My worry is that if public confidence in the judicial system declines, so will people’s respect for the rule of law. We are therefore at an important crossroads and need to decide which way we should go. Either we acknowledge that the 2013 cuts to Legal Aid have taken matters too far or, we radically reform the existing Court system so that the family cases going through the Courts are limited to those involving personal protection or the protection of assets. An obvious area where cases could be diverted out of the Court process is where the principle of contact is agreed but the issue relates to how much time the children spend with each parent. With a better funded mediation service and a more accessible arbitration service, we could dramatically reduce the daily workload of the judiciary.
In addition I believe that the allocation of Duty Judges to deal with urgent cases on a daily basis would ensure that there is proper and immediate access to justice.
I remain concerned about the role of magistrates in the family justice system. In cases which can have far reaching consequences for families, such as adoption or the removal of a child from parental care, the law is not straightforward and the decision-making process therefore needs to be well reasoned and justified. The current system where the onus is placed on legal advisers to advise the magistrates hearing a case on the relevant law is quite frankly inadequate. Not only is the process incredibly time consuming but it is not uncommon for the Facts and Reasons prepared by Lay Justices to be the subject of challenge, appeal or further litigation.
Aside from a greater push for mediation, what more do you think family law could benefit from?
A better system for litigants in person is top of the agenda here. A Duty Solicitor Scheme would be a start where those who are unable to afford legal representation are provided with free advice and representation at an initial directions hearing. Judges would then be freed from the time consuming task of drafting Orders and trying to manage the emotions of litigants in person in what are already busy Court lists.
A similar scheme is already in place in respect of housing cases coming before the Courts and like the Housing Duty Solicitor Scheme, there is no reason why the Family Duty Solicitor Scheme could not be the subject of a competitive tender.
You are often involved in cases which results in children being returned to their parents’ care; what three things are key for you in order to ensure this outcome is achieved?
The initial appointment with the client is very important. As well as obtaining my client’s instructions and agreeing objectives, I aim to agree both short term and long term outcomes with my clients and what we will each need to do to achieve the desired outcome. Often during a case, we will need to change our approach so I review desired outcomes with my clients at regular intervals throughout their case. It is also essential that I identify at an early stage the witnesses and experts who are likely to help my clients achieve the outcomes they desire. Sometimes, of course, it is just not possible to persuade the Court to return the children to a parent’s care and, in such cases, my role tends to focus on whether the Local Authority’s proposals are both realistic and achievable. However, the greatest satisfaction I experience in my work is when I am acting for a parent and I successfully persuade the Court that the child can remain or be safely placed in his or her care.