You’d be forgiven for associating the law with dusty books and wigs on hooks; in many ways it hasn’t caught up with society’s modern day priorities, and lawyers are the first to admit that they have some way to go on the “innovate or die” front. However, with the right support and legal advice it is absolutely possible to come out of the other side with the best possible deal for your family, and understanding the ways in which the system can work for you is very much to be encouraged.
Whilst strictly speaking it is up to the parents to use the system with respect to their own children or arrangements with their ex, rather than stepparents, it is so often the case that stepparents will spend hours paralegal-ing their way through articles and commentary in an attempt to support their other halves. This is completely understandable, as the results will impact directly on the stepparents’ lives too.
This is why, rather than telling you that it isn’t your job to be finding the answers, this series “Stepmothers and The Law” will take a broad look at some of the most common concepts, and will point you in the direction of some more in-depth explanations. In that spirit, therefore, we’re going to start with an overview of how to obtain the right legal advice.
Of course there may also come a time when you need support yourself, perhaps with the breakdown of your own relationship, and what is discussed here will therefore be directly relevant to you.
**Last updated June 2021.**
This is a UK-based blog, and the following information relates to England and Wales. See all of our Stepmothers and the Law posts here.
Obtaining Legal advice
Always seek legal advice specific to your situation. Family Law is no stranger to the complexities of our laws, and to top it all off it has to be one of the most (if not the most) emotive subject matters.
If you are looking for the support of a family lawyer to take a matter forwards, the Legal 500 ranks solicitors, barristers and law firms by area of the UK. Use the left hand menu to choose your area, and then the left hand menu again to find ‘Family Law’ – this usually falls under Private Client. You will find a list of the best family law firms and leading individuals here, with a description of the types of work they undertake. The Law Society also lists solicitors in your postcode – it doesn’t provide the same sort of detail as the Legal 500, but it does include high street firms as well as some of the more well known outfits, which may be useful to you.
Financing Your Legal Support
There are various different ways in which you can finance your legal advice. Legal Choices sets out a comprehensive list of some of the options, including insurance, legal aid, and no win no fee arrangements.
It’s worth pointing out, however, the no win no fee options are becoming increasingly hard to come by, and they don’t always work out in client’s favour (especially where the case becomes protracted and fees wrack up).
Some car insurance and home insurance comes with legal insurance tagged on the end – it might seem unlikely, but it’s worth checking your insurance small print to see whether family disputes are covered.
Free Legal Support
- Legal Aid
Ah, Legal Aid. It has been heavily slashed under austerity measures here in the UK, but it does still exist.
You can take the eligibility test here to see whether you might be able to claim it – in some cases it is still available to fund advice around family law disputes (including access issues).
- McKenzie Friends
Whilst not technically legal advice, McKenzie Friends offer moral and practical support for those representing themselves in Court. Someone with experience of representing themselves successfully, or sometimes volunteers with law degrees (or even paralegals or other professionals), will sit with you in Court. They might take notes, or offer you an impartial point of view.
They are a growing force in the UK Court system, and are accepted as an excellent resource for those who would not otherwise have any other form of legal advice.
See here for more information.
- Free Lawyer Consultations
Quite a number of lawyers will offer a free initial consultation – it’s worth asking them about this when you first call them up. Whilst it’s unlikely that they’ll give you any detailed advice, they will at least steer you in the right direction and give you your options (and, usually, their opinion on your chances of “winning” in Court).
See below for the difference between the types of lawyers, and where to go to find one near you.
If your case is particularly complicated, it may be worth approaching Advocate. This is an organisation which matches barristers who want to carry out free (pro bono) work for the sake of social justice, with people who need the free support. They usually work on highly contentious issues, so if you think you’re headed to Court it would be worth looking them up.
- Free Legal Clinics
It’s also worth trying Law Works; they offer free legal clinics, and you can find out whether there’s one in your area on their website. They work with people who are not eligible for Legal Aid, but who still cannot afford to pay for legal advice themselves.
There is, of course, always Citizens Advice. Many junior lawyers cut their advocacy teeth at Citizens Advice, and despite Corona Virus they are still offering some services (over the phone if not in person). Check here for a clinic near you and how to contact them for support.
What’s the difference between a solicitor and barrister?
Broadly speaking, a solicitor will handle all aspects of a case for you, whether or not the issue is contentious. This means that even if your partner is in agreement with their ex about the contents of a Consent Order, say, they can still use a solicitor to draw up the document to make sure it becomes legally binding. Some solicitors can also represent you in Court should the matter get to that point.
Some solicitor firms may employ Chartered Legal Executives or CILEx Practitioners. These professionals work alongside solicitors, and may carry out some work on your behalf. Different qualifications require different levels of supervision, regardless of whether that person is a solicitor or a CILEx Practitioner, and difference between the people providing you with support should be explained to you by the law firm you choose to represent you.
Barristers tend to be used when a case is highly contentious; either there is a lot of money at stake, or the case takes on a point of law which is in the public interest to be tested in Court (e.g. a particularly awful case of parental alienation). They also tend to be highly specialised in specific areas of Family Law and are skilled in considering how recent case law may impact on your situation. Often it will be a solicitor who initially reviews your case, and they may then suggest that a barrister is used to bring the case to Court or to look over paperwork which requires specialist input. Solicitors and barristers work closely together and maintain strong networks, so either one should be able to recommend the other to you should you need it.
Just to complicate the matter slightly, in Family Law you will also come across mediators. These can be either solicitors or barristers who have taken additional training to become certified mediators. Their role is to encourage dialogue and consensus between the parties without the need to go to Court.
Is Mediation a Good Idea?
In a word, yes. You will be hard pushed to find a legal professional who doesn’t praise the benefits of mediation. You will also find it difficult in most circumstances to bring a grievance to Court without having attempted mediation first. There are exceptions to this however, such as in cases of domestic abuse – for the full list see here from the Family Mediation Council.
Use the Family Mediation Council to find your local mediator and to check their qualifications. In some situations, e.g. access disputes, it may be appropriate for a mediator to speak to the children in order to ascertain what would be in their best interests. Look for a mediator who is “qualified to see children in mediation” if you think this might apply to you.
What Happens at Mediation?
Either party may choose a mediator, who will then need to contact the other to ask whether they’re happy to proceed with the mediation. It’s worth bearing in mind that a mediator must be impartial, it’s part of their job, so just because one side has chosen the mediator it doesn’t mean that the mediator will be acting in their favour.
Sometimes a mediator might suggest that they see each party separately before bringing them together, but this isn’t always deemed necessary. The ultimate aim is to bring both parties to an agreement; current stats suggest that it might take between 3 and 5 sessions to achieve this, so if it doesn’t happen in the first session, do not despair!
The agreement you reach at mediation isn’t legally binding on its own, but you can ask the Court to make it into a legally binding Consent Order. If this is your ultimate aim, it’s usually a good idea to have your own solicitor look over the agreement first to make sure it contains everything it needs to. Your mediator will be able to provide further information on this when relevant.
The ultimate mantra of the UK’s legal system is “what is in the best interests of the children?”. This will be at the very heart of any agreement reached during mediation or any order granted by the Courts. It might not always be pretty, and sometimes it will be downright painful, but the hope is that all families will get there eventually. Do your research and make sure that you’re happy with the support you’re receiving – I promise that it will make a very difficult situation slightly more bearable.