Taunton Lawyer Kit O’Brien explores the relationship between the Family Law client and the Family Law Solicitor and calls for the highest standards of conduct to be maintained.

The media has had great sport recently with a case involving a divorcing couple hell bent on spending their, not inconsiderable, funds on tearing one another to shreds emotionally and financially; and running the risk of causing real harm to their two children along the way.  So what’s special about that you may ask?  Well, in this instance, a complicating factor seems to be that the wife’s solicitor is also her new partner.  And this isn’t, as far as I can assess, a case where the solicitor concerned happens to be working in the firm the wife has chosen to instruct.  No, the wife’s partner is the lawyer who is personally representing her in the family proceedings as a result of which she has reportedly run up a huge legal bill.

It’s quite clear that this has opened up a complete mare’s nest and I can’t help wondering whether, even if the solicitor concerned truly believes that he is the best person to assist his partner in her legal proceedings, he wouldn’t be doing her the greatest service by bowing out professionally; even if he continues to provide her with personal and indeed financial support. 

There’s no bar on a solicitor having a relationship with their client, but it does cause consternation especially in family law cases where emotions inevitably run high.  The SRA code of conduct, by which solicitors are bound, requires solicitors to:

“ensure they have the “systems and controls” in place to assess whether their ability as an individual to act in the best interests of their client is “impaired by… a personal relationship.”

Resolution, the organisation for specialist family lawyers goes even further, saying:

“given the vulnerable position of the majority of family clients and the nature of the relationship between a solicitor and the client, the solicitor should be careful to avoid instigating a personal (non-professional) relationship with the client… Family lawyers should not have sexual relationships with their clients. If such a relationship exists or develops during the course of the retainer, then the solicitor should immediately explain to the client that they can no longer act.”

Although case reports normally detail the firms of solicitors involved, in this instance (and quite properly) that information hasn’t been provided, so we have no way of knowing the identity of the firm concerned, let alone the individual solicitor.  Assuming however that the solicitor is not in practice on his own, its surprising that he has obtained the support of his business partners to allow a client to run up unpaid legal bills (according to the media) of some £300,000 – always assuming that they were satisfied he wasn’t outside the SRA code of conduct.  And that’s before you even take the Resolution provisions into account. 

It does seem however that the solicitor concerned has now begun to recognise that he may have put both himself and his client in a difficult position and he has referred himself to the SRA. 

I’m not commenting on this issue out of prurience or a malicious glee at finding another professional in difficulties.  We’re all human and we can all find relationships in the most surprising places.  But I believe strongly that as family lawyers we have to understand that the emotions surrounding relationship breakdown mean that our clients come to us in a very different place to that which they might occupy in any other legal situation.  Our job is to help them, support them and represent them to the absolute best of our ability.  Doing our job properly inevitably means that the solicitor/client relationship in a family law case will not be the same as it might be in, say, a commercial law transaction.  We can and we should empathise with our clients – we are, after all, as human as they are.  If at all possible, however, we should maintain our relationship at a professional level because that’s how we best serve our clients’ interests.  And what if love strikes unexpectedly?  Then you continue to do your job properly for the client – who is now more than a client to you – and refer them to another good, specialist family lawyer in a completely different firm, so that you have no connection with their case other than providing support as their partner. 

We understand that family law clients need us to go the extra mile when it comes to providing them with practical and emotional support, as well as legal advice.  We make sure that we allow nothing to cloud our judgment.  They have enough issues to resolve as it is, without their lawyer muddying the waters.

Call Kit on Taunton 01823 354545 for details of our offer of a free initial meeting.

When the Solicitor/Client Relationship Oversteps the Mark