How do you see ‘direct access’ instructions having an impact on your chambers?
At 4PB we have seen a significant increase in direct access instructions in the last few years. About 30 of us take such cases and we have specific clerks to deal with them. It is important to offer the lay client the full range of legal services. And the legal professions are and should be much more flexible than they were. If the lay client wants to see a barrister for a first opinion but then e.g. instruct a solicitor to do the advocacy they should be able to. The most common type of DA cases we see are those where members of the public pre proceedings want an opinion from an experienced advocate about what would happen if they went to court. That said, direct access is only appropriate in a minority of family cases. And in the majority that we see, we advise the lay client that they need a solicitor. We can’t provide the type and level of service and support solicitors do and we don’t pretend to. Each case is unique and the trick is to work out from a wide-ranging menu of legal services what suits the particular client.
What is your view on the impact the Government’s legal aid cuts will have on the Family Bar?
More importantly than the Family Bar I think the cuts will have a drastic effect on the most vulnerable members of society. The cuts will exclude a significant proportion of the population from legal assistance in private law disputes. I think that is a great shame because these cases can be fundamentally important to families and children and have serious consequences. I know we are living in difficult economic times but I think these cuts are short sighted and will save relatively little money contrasted to the hidden additional costs arising. As for the Family Bar who do publically funded, they are not fat cats. They have not had a pay increase in my professional lifetime – more than 25 years. They are hugely dedicated to the type of work they do and year on year work harder and longer for less financial reward. I think the Family Bar who do this type of work are demoralised and working under a lot of pressure.
Do children receive ‘access to justice’, and do you think they will, moving forward?
I think children in care proceedings in the past have received access to justice in the sense that they have been parties to the proceedings and represented by specialist family lawyers and experienced Children’s Guardians.
But the position now is that fewer and fewer solicitors are doing this work and the system is losing its experienced Guardians; so children’s access to justice in the public law arena is less secure than it was. In private law proceedings the position is graver. The decrease and end in funding means an increase in litigants in person and the linked real risk that children will not be heard. Looking ahead I do not see our system for protecting children’s interests in family proceedings as improving.
What advice would you give a junior family practitioner reading this?
There will always be a need for specialist advocates to do the most difficult cases so do not lose heart.
Empathise but keep your distance: boundaries are a good thing. Don’t over identify with your client; after all their children are not your children. Maintain the highest standard possible.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
Know your papers inside out. It is all in the preparation. If you have done this you will come across as calm, assured and in control. There is nothing worse than seeing a barrister in a flap.
How do you relax?
It is very difficult to relax in this job; as my wife knows, I am glued to my iphone. Colleagues in chambers joke that when they come into my room any attempt at a normal conversation is interrupted every minute or two by the sound alert of the iphone, email, text and ipad. One in particular refuses to talk to me unless I promise her that all the alerts are turned off. But away from chambers I find skiing a real escape (and therefore relaxing) because it is the only holiday when I do turn the phone off. When skiing I can only focus on one thing - getting down in one piece. At home I like box sets: Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad are all-time favourites and currently we are watching the entire eight series of the West Wing from start to finish. Jed Bartlet is my new role model, which is probably a better one than Tony Soprano, who was a few years ago.
How are you finding being Head of Chambers?
It is a huge privilege to be HOC at 4 Paper Buildings. I took over from Jonathan Cohen QC last October. People say it takes up the equivalent of one day a week (maybe 15 hours then!), but with a great team of clerks and support from members, so far all is well.
Alex Verdan QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson, a partner at Hewetson Shah LLP