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University of Sunderland

Family law: helping clients to navigate emotional and complex situations

Posted on: October 4, 2022
Small figurines of a man woman and child in front of a hammer and gavel

Family life can be a rich, varied and complex affair. As such, family law is, by nature, tied up in some of the most turbulent and traumatic life events and situations. Emotions are often high, and lives and livelihoods are at stake. Add to this the highly complicated and stressful process of navigating the legal system, and it’s apparent why seeking expert legal advice is often the best route forward.

What is family law?

Family law matters are concerned with finding solutions to issues regarding family relationships – such as parenthood, divorce, domestic violence and child protection. It exists to detail and protect both the rights and responsibilities of family members, offering a framework by which equitable and fair resolutions can be achieved. Dealing, as it does, with what can be highly personal aspects of private family life – often during extremely difficult times – it can be among the most emotive areas of the legal profession.

As families and issues concerning families are diverse, so too is family law. It can involve children, elderly people, and everyone in between. Working from a collaborative standpoint, clients are helped to understand their position and supported through the dispute resolution process to address their individual familial arrangement issue.

The Family Court exists to deal with legal disputes regarding children, relationship breakdowns and other family matters, and deals with both public and private law. In the first quarter of 2022, it observed: 68,134 new cases, which was a decrease of 6% on the same period in 2021; decreases in most types of cases – including financial remedy, private law, adoption and matrimonial; and increases in cases involving public law and domestic violence.

Main topics and issues covered by family law

For families experiencing contentious or legal issues, involving a law firm who specialise in family law and family mediation may be the best – or only – option for resolving a matter.

Family law and family legal aid is a broad, diverse area of the profession. It can cover an extensive variety of topics:

  • Marriage, divorce, judicial separation, nullity, dissolution and financial separation – including pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements and matrimonial property regimes
  • Children, parentage, residence, contact and parental responsibility – may also cover adoption, surrogacy, child abduction and neglect
  • Cohabitation
  • Family dispute resolution
  • Financial matters relating to families
  • Children’s rights
  • Domestic abuse
  • Domestic obligations towards families under international treaties – for example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)
  • Socio-legal family law – whether the law has adequately responded to modern societal views, such as same-sex partnerships
  • Family law and the state – the role of agencies and local authorities in childcare and child protection matters.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) offers the general public advice on how to choose the right solicitor and how to work with legal professionals, as well as a searchable database to check whether a solicitor is regulated or not.

Family law legislation

In England and Wales, the justice system operates on the basis of common law. There are a number of core pieces of legislation and statutes relating to family law, including the:

  • Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which focuses on divorce and financial proceedings
  • Children Act 1989, which focuses on the welfare and upbringing of children
  • Family Law Act 1986
  • Human Rights Act 1998
  • Domicile and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1973
  • Children and Families Act 2014
  • Child Support Act 1991
  • Adoption and Children Act 1992
  • Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013
  • Married Women’s Property Act 1992
  • Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Act 2019.

What does the role of a family lawyer involve?

The remit of family lawyers is wide-ranging. On a day-to-day basis, for example, a lawyer may attend client meetings, draft legal documents, file applications in the Family Court, analyse points of law, meet with barristers to discuss upcoming trials, or negotiate with opposing legal teams to achieve a financial settlement or other settlement agreement. They also might investigate and evaluate potential evidence, attend court hearings, make applications for court orders, or research previous, similar cases to inform a current one.

The specifics of each task and responsibility are dictated by the cases they are working on. For example, cases relating to relationships – which can be both positive and negative – might involve drafting prenuptial agreements to protect a client’s financial interests, preparing separation agreements, outlining financial settlements and fair division of assets following divorce or advising on divorce proceedings or civil partnerships dissolutions.

Relating to child arrangements and care proceedings, it’s within a lawyer’s remit to negotiate contact, access and place of residence arrangements. A significant aspect of the role is the facilitation of resolutions; this could include specifics regarding decision-making in a child’s life and other aspects of parental responsibility and who it lies with, and termination of parental rights.

In the event that a settlement can’t be reached, a family lawyer can support through the process of taking a case to court.

Choosing a career in family law

Any individual considering a career in family law should expect to undertake client-facing work with both adults and children. As cases often involve distressing circumstances, events and processes, having the ability to cope, and remain calm and level-headed for clients, is key. It may also suit those who gain satisfaction from handling relationships, helping others, and interacting with clients of all types. Family lawyers must also have the capacity to personally detach themselves from clients and client problems and remain professional.

Develop the legal skills and expertise to support families during difficult times

Could greater legal expertise and awareness boost your career progression or support you in your current role?

Whether you work in the legal profession or not, gain an in-depth understanding of family law with the University of Sunderland’s online LLM Master of Laws programme. Our flexible course will introduce you to a wide range of disciplines within law, equipping you with the knowledge to transfer your skills and know-how to your business environment. You’ll gain an expansive legal education, including family law, criminal law, tort law, employment and contract law, and much more.

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