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In this article Collette Price looks at the option of appointing a barrister directly to help with family law matters…

“Lawyers”, “Barristers”, “Solicitors”: what’s the difference? Who should I go to if I have a legal problem? Who can I go to? Well it’s rather like ‘doctors’, GPs and consultants: barristers and solicitors are all ‘lawyers’ in the same way that GPs and consultants are ‘doctors’. Traditionally if you have a medical problem you see your GP and he or she may then refer you to a hospital where you will see a consultant. Traditionally, if you had a legal problem, you went to see a solicitor who decided whether or not to involve a barrister.

But times they are a changing: gone is the legal aid for arguing about property following divorce. Gone is the no-win, no-fee structure for pursuing claims. Gone is the assurance that you will be fully covered with legal aid in a criminal case. Gone is the assurance that you will recoup your private fees if you win in the Crown Court.

Gone too is the requirement to instruct a solicitor before going to a barrister: you can now leapfrog the solicitor stage and go straight to a barrister, provided they are accredited for ‘direct access’. 

The direct access method is a very collaborative exercise between you and your barrister. You are in it together. Most barristers are self-employed and fiercely independent. They have no ‘firm’. They don’t have the resources of a firm, so they don’t have the financial overheads of running a firm. Barristers may be a cheaper option than a solicitor and you are dealing with one individual. Not a group. Nor is there the added expense of a solicitor and then a barrister.

And really it is up to you what sort of service you want to ask for: you can opt for the traditional service whereby you are advised and hand-held each and every step of the way (though you might consider a solicitor is better suited to do that). Or you can demand a more bespoke service: some advice in writing or in conference with your barrister before the first day at court. You might just want your barrister to be at court at the final hearing. You might only want to know what to put in your bundle of documents that the court told you to lodge before a hearing date or to know what the merits of your case are before proceeding. And it is also agreeing how you communicate when you are not face to face: some barristers will be happy to take telephone calls at all hours, but with other barristers it will be done through email or fax or by prior arrangement. 

In addition to all the usual qualifications, barristers who do direct access work have to have been accredited following a specific course. In order to practice they must have professional indemnity insurance. But you are not going to get legal aid to cover a direct access barrister: if you are going to get legal aid then you may consider approaching a solicitor in the traditional way. 

Presently if you want a direct access barrister to draft you a legal letter or court document for service, that can be done but in your name. That means that the barrister can draft and send to you the relevant letter/document/claim form, but you will have to sign it and send it out. This is going to change soon, probably in September. Following that, a barrister will be able to do all these things on your behalf.

Where do you find direct access barristers who will specialize in the area of law you are concerned with, and in your locality? Take a look at the Bar Council website and follow the links. You can then find a likely barrister and search for them in their own chambers’ website pages.

There are other ways of finding direct access barristers, (OnlyDads & OnlyMums list some here) but don’t pay any referral fees. You don’t need to. And you shouldn’t.

Collette is a family mediator and barrister.

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