Addiction is not the preserve of the working classes and no respecter of wealth or status, and most family lawyers at some point in their career will come into contact with clients who have addiction issues.

Alongside this, one must consider the fact that surveys show that addiction is rife among the legal profession itself, and often goes undiagnosed. The legal health support charity LawCare, which runs a confidential helpline, reports high rates of calls about alcohol abuse related to workplace stress. Of the 56,000 hits on LawCare’s website in the first five months of the year, and the 24,000 of those visitors who viewed documents offering support, the most visited page was the alcohol treatment centre page.

Most people have an awareness of substance addictions and the havoc that, say, an alcoholic or a drug addict can wreak on their family’s life. But many are unaware of the other more insidious and less transparent addictions, such as codependency, sex addiction and work addiction, to mention just a few. Indeed, one merely has to look around a law firm at 10pm to see colleagues beavering away; or switch on the BlackBerry in the morning to be met by torrents of emails sent through the evening and early hours of the morning, to see how prevalent work addiction is in the legal profession.

Don Serratt, founder of Life Works, a private treatment centre for addiction, depression and other health disorders, says that ‘process addictions such as sex and love addiction can be just as destructive to the family as alcohol or drugs’. One of the common threads running through all addictions is that ‘the individual will continue to act out self-destructive behaviours in spite of serious consequences’. Such behaviour can include extra-marital affairs, prostitution, pornography or online sex, which ‘can ultimately be all-consuming and result in significant consequences including the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment, legal problems and loss of health’.

Despite the efforts of organisations such as LawCare, there is still a lack of education and understanding about the nature of addiction among many family lawyers. To develop such an understanding would have a profound impact on some lawyers’ conduct, and surely reduce the propensity of some to moralise about the other party’s addiction issues, and become embroiled in messy disputes focusing on the conduct of the respective parties.

Such ‘finger pointing’ is particularly prevalent in divorce and financial relief cases in which the conduct of the parties is one factor that the court can take into account (section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act), despite the fact that focusing on such conduct is broadly discouraged by the judiciary, save for in the most serious cases. Such an approach is indicative of the continuing belief of some lawyers that addiction is a moral failing or that it demonstrates a lack of self-control. Such outdated views run counter to the recognition of addiction as an illness by the World Health Organisation.

Of course, clients should not be absolved entirely of responsibility for conduct while under the influence of an addictive substance, but it is important that lawyers avoid the temptation of trying to score easy points in litigation by placing excessive focus on such conduct and failing to recognise genuine attempts by the sufferer to recover, such as through receiving in-patient treatment in a clinic or treatment centre.

Mudslinging by lawyers about their client’s former partner in litigation is never something to be encouraged. This is particularly true in addiction cases, where the other partner may be suffering from their own addiction, disorder or mental health condition. Georgina Vintin, systemic family therapist and founder of Collaborate, a group of professionals who support individuals and families through divorce and separation, says: ‘When working in such contexts it can be helpful to try to take a more systemic view, rather than using a linear lens heaped with blame and often fuelled with the hope of "winning".

‘Making sense of illnesses and how they are contextualised within relationships is vital. Often we see negative relationship patterns occur between a couple and it is essential to be more informed as to how these can sustain illnesses/addictions for all parties. Collaborate has witnessed many clients recover from addictions/illnesses after the divorce process is over, once they are free of the negative patterns of behaviour within that relationship.

‘It is clear that people with addictions need to take responsibility for their illness, but we also need to be mindful of how addiction behaviours can manifest themselves within patterns of negative behaviour among significant relationships, such as marriages. This is something all parties need to be aware and responsible for.’

Vintin also makes the point that ‘for lawyers to acquire a deeper awareness of the dynamics of such relationships can help the legal process, their own emotional well-being and their relationship with clients. Such negative relationship patterns can be compelling and lawyers can often be affected by them. By developing such an understanding, lawyers have a better chance of protecting themselves when working with clients in such stressful circumstances’. Given the aforementioned prevalence of stress-related addiction issues among lawyers, such a development would surely be welcome.

Some of the case law does demonstrate a willingness by the judiciary to give due credit for attempts to recover from addiction. For example, in Re T-R and W (Children) (Adoption: Expert Evidence) [2001] 1 FCR 130, the Court of Appeal refused to make a residence order in respect of a nine-month-old baby in favour of the father’s family who lived in Tanzania, largely because of the UK-based mother’s excellent progress in her treatment for alcohol problems. The mother had suffered from alcoholism for several years and previously had her two elder children removed from her care and her youngest placed with a short-term foster mother. Despite this, it was ordered that the child would stay in the UK and contact with the mother progressively increased over the coming months.

The pioneering work of District Judge Nicholas Crichton and the Family Drug and Alcohol Court in Wells Street, London (now being piloted in other areas of the country) has been another welcome development. After spending a day observing proceedings at Wells Street, one is left with an overriding feeling of hope for the parents that, despite their issues, they are being given a chance to take care of their children, accompanied by the appropriate safeguards of child welfare considerations.

No family lawyer worth their practising certificate would argue that the welfare of the child should be ascribed less importance than the needs of the parent recovering from addiction. However, the approach whereby sufferers are given a chance rather than being ‘written off’ or castigated in litigation, which can often become vicious, is surely the way forward.

While most family lawyers are not psychotherapists or counsellors, they do have a responsibility to educate themselves about addiction. Hopefully, such education will encourage lawyers to resist the temptation to use one party’s addiction as a stick to beat them with to gain an advantage in litigation.

Annmarie Gosling is a solicitor at Farrer & Co