As I head off into the sunset after forty years in the legal profession, mostly in the practice of family law, I have the opportunity to reflect on so much that has changed during those four decades.
A little bit of history
Qualifying in 1980, my first position was as a Court Assistant with Warner & Co. There were very few specialists in any discipline at that time and I had to take on the complete panoply of court work including large amounts of divorce work (mostly involving domestic abuse), personal injury work, industrial tribunals, licensing and breach of contract. I was also involved with a lot of criminal work, and it is perhaps indicative of a different era, that only seven weeks after getting my practising certificate, I was sent up to conduct a Sheriff and Jury trial on my own without counsel. I duly secured an acquittal but when I look back, it was scary stuff!
After 12 years at Warners, 10 of them as partner, I took the decision to set up my own firm, Loudons WS, specialising in divorce, personal injury and crime. It was only in 1996 that the decision was taken to focus purely on family law and became the second niche family law practice in Scotland at that time. Five years later, I was asked to join Turcan Connell to establish a family law team, which has gone from strength to strength over the last 18 years.
It’s hard to believe that back in 1980 all divorce cases had to be raised in the Court of Session, and even if your office was as close as Musselburgh or Dalkeith, you had to instruct an Edinburgh firm to conduct the Court of Session proceedings. Ridiculous! There were a number of firms which existed almost entirely to provide correspondent divorce services for firms elsewhere in Scotland. All written and verbal pleading had to be done by Counsel and the cost of a Summons was £15 plus VAT!
The advent of sheriff court divorce represented a sea change in procedure but the substantive law of divorce was largely undeveloped and it was difficult to settle cases with no real guidance from past cases as to what represented fair or reasonable financial provision. The introduction of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985 changed all of that, and although it took a number of years for the law to settle down – and indeed it’s still developing – practitioners gradually came to have much clearer guidance from caselaw to help them in assessing what would represent a fair settlement. As a result, those of us who were practising family law on a regular basis were able to develop a culture where resolution of financial issues by way of negotiation became very much the norm. We also developed a culture of “joint meetings” which allowed spouses to sit round the table with their solicitors to thrash out a deal. I was very proud to be in the forefront of that movement.
On the child law front, when I started out a very significant number of cases began with a “custody battle”. The courts generally insisted that one parent should be awarded custody with the other exercising access usually confined to every second weekend. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 gradually brought about a most welcome evolution in the attitude of parents to childcare arrangements post separation, to the extent that we rarely now become involved in a dispute about a child’s residence and shared care arrangements are very much the norm.
There’s always room for improvement
Regrettably, over the last few years, I’ve observed an increasing reluctance on the part of practitioners to seek early resolution of cases by way of negotiation. Litigation, which should be a last resort, has become more prevalent again. I do hope that that trend can be reversed.
The most satisfying cases for me have always been those in which at the conclusion of the divorce, the parties have either retained their respect for each other or have had it restored. There are never really any winners in a litigated divorce action because even the seemingly successful spouse will have endured years of trauma while the litigation unfolds and will generally be worse off financially whatever the result.
The next generation
I’m delighted that the Family Law team at Turcan Connell comprises solicitors of the very highest calibre, and I leave to enjoy my retirement knowing that the next generation are in the very best of hands.