Family partner, London
I did a degree in Russian at Bristol, took a year out afterwards to work as a Home Office interpreter, and then went to law school to study my CPE and LPC at the College of Law. I qualified in a small legal aid firm and then moved to the suburbs. My first job on qualification was in a firm which specialised in child abduction. I was actually taken on to be a personal injury solicitor but got ‘nicked’ by the family partner.
At the time, the firm was on the lord chancellor’s panel for abduction (later to be replaced by the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit). We used to share cases on a rota when they came in and the adrenaline was addictive. Many an evening was spent with my phone close at hand in case the tipstaff called to send in a process server. It was fast-moving and really in a lot of cases required detective work. Often, we would not know where an errant parent was with the child, so I would march up to court to ask for specific disclosure orders already drafted. I had a couple of memorable occasions, such as when the copy which went to the judge was my working copy covered with my ‘emergency’ plum which had attached itself. The judge made the orders and then, with a very straight face at the end, asked me whether I would like it back. There was another judge who was infamous for his temperament; we would judge the mood based on the person who went in ahead.
That was 20 years ago. I was thrown into advocacy, and teach it now. I tell my students that we all recall what it was like at the beginning, rehearsing in front of a mirror but I promise them that it does get easier.
'Many an evening was spent with my phone close at hand in case the tipstaff called to send in a process server. It was fast-moving and really in a lot of cases required detective work. Often, we would not know where an errant parent was'
Child abduction was a fantastic hands-on introduction to family. I did a seat for my training contract and kept paper precedents – I relied on those for the first few years. There was no email for me when I was training. Indeed, I remember my first email address was at work on qualification. I doubt that the research module taught at law school still exists in the same format. What I love about family is that one minute you can be dealing with something very emotionally challenging for the client, and the next you can be knee-deep in a pension report. I have always had a mixed practice of children and money.
When I started, parental alienation (PA) was not recognised. There is still a very long way to go as it can be cited when it is not actually PA. It is for a judge to make that finding. There are often some real red flags pointing to PA, but often a psychologist or other mental health professional is the one to recommend to the court that the case with them is or has aspects of PA. For example, with PA one tends to see an entire side of a family lost – not ‘just’ a mother or father.
I met my MP Oliver Dowden to explain to him that PA is not recognised under the Children Act. There are those who seek for it to be a criminal offence but that was not the angle I was seeking. Rather, that the Children Act 1989 set out specific criteria to assist the court alongside the welfare checklist to be considered where PA is raised. Unfortunately, he did not understand me and after our meeting I received a reply to say welfare issues are considered under the Children Act. It was very frustrating. However, I am now part of a group of all sorts of individuals – solicitors, barristers, independent social workers, psychologists, therapists and alienated parents who are working together to try to change this.
I have a podcast called The Splitting Headache. It is all about splitting up and how to best navigate this. We discuss lots of situations including PA but also other aspects such as good old-fashioned communication. I applied to lecture in family law at BPP before I joined my current firm, as I wanted a challenge. I was at the time head of a team of 30 lawyers, but really wanted to teach as well. I was taken on; but to teach advocacy and more recently ethics. I love working with students and watching their confidence grow. It is great that I do this while in practice as I can often give them real-life scenarios.