Bi-Annual Birmingham Law Society Family Law Conference

Bi-Annual Birmingham Law Society Family Law Conference

Friday 18th October saw 3PB Barristers hosting the Bi-Annual Family Law Conference from Birmingham Law Society, with talks from the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, Sir Michael Keehan and other experts in their fields.  

This week we will be looking at each speaker and what they brought to the conference regarding the current and future aspects of family law. 

Sir Andrew McFarlane, feeling at home in Birmingham, being described as ‘a local lad’, spoke primarily about maintaining the well-being of professionals in the industry, especially those in family law.  Promoting a ‘do as you would be done’ attitude he hopes to encourage respectful and healthy ways of working.   

It was an interest in adoption that lead Sir McFarlane into family law, as well as the personal aspect.  Each case is important to the client, involving the most central parts of their lives – family, marriage, children and money.  With clients often never having experienced court, and most of the time never will again, Sir McFarlane emphasised the importance of the need for solicitors to empathise with their clients, putting themselves in their client’s shoes and to understand the ‘emotional landscape’ of the case.  However, there is a fine line and a risk of becoming too involved with the case.  High professional standards must still be met, without losing sight of the objective.  

Having recently attended a YRes meeting, Sir McFarlane spoke of how it had focused on well-being.  Within family law especially, empathy can have its dangers when a professional becomes too involved in the case.  For every case you take on, a small part of you is taken away as it is only human to become involved and it is not uncommon to go above your duties as a professional.   

With enormous loads on the system, especially when it involves children, there is immense pressure on all involved.  An increase of litigants in person, who regularly come to court unprepared, causing delays, as well as having unrealistic expectations and 26 week statutory requirements, it is all adding to an already stretched ‘pressure cooker’ of a system .  Sir McFarlane did not give his position on the removal of Legal Aid and the rise of litigants in person, but it was not hard to presume his view during his talk. 

To aid with the wellbeing of all involved in law, especially family law, Sir McFarlane suggested that there needs to be an open discussion regarding the pressures on professionals including what is reasonable when it comes to items such as working hours and communications.  It is not sustainable to work 24 hours a day, answering emails at midnight.  Sir McFarlane feels that individuals need to have ‘a life outside their work’ and by enabling unsustainable working conditions only masks the level to which the resources do not match the current workload’.  

Sir McFarlane finished by stating that the family law system is a co-operative one, with so many different organisations working together.  Described as ‘trying to turn a tanker’, the family law system is not one that can change easily or quickly.  There have been large and positive changes however, with the introduction of the Divorce Bill, the Domestic Abuse Bill, the guidance published by the Pension Advisory Group and the introduction of the Financial Remedies Court.   

There are areas that still require work however.  Sir McFarlane raised concerns with the rise in Local Authority applications for the relocation of teenagers into accommodation, often being placed in areas away from their local area.  He feels there should be guidance released on this. 

Another area was that of the Divorce Centres and how they had ground to a halt due to the lack of professionals to support them.  However, with the online system now accounting to 40% of divorce applications and increasing, he saw that the Divorce Centres will soon cease and the more efficient online system will take over – professionals will have to bear with it at present and estimates a further 6 months for things to improve and the current delays being radically reduced.  

When asked about AI in family law, Sir McFarlane did not feel that this at present would be a worry for family law practitioners.  Although there are areas where AI can aid processes that are easily automated, the value of human judgement and assessment is not one that can easily be replaced by any technology.  

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