In England and Wales there are two types of lawyers for the purposes of family and civil law:
Solicitors have offices, either on their own or in partnership with other solicitors as firms. Some are very specialised and some are more general practitioners. As a client, you will contact a solicitor who will run your case, advise you initially and then represent you. The solicitor will
Solicitors have “rights of audience” (i.e. can represent you) in all county court proceedings and most High Court proceedings. Nevertheless, depending on the case, the solicitor’s workload and such factors, your solicitor may instruct a barrister to represent you at a hearing.
Solicitors’ charges are almost always based on the time spent, based on an hourly rate plus 20% VAT (unless you live outside the EU). They record their time at units of 1/10 of an hour. You will probably be asked to pay money on account at the start of the case and you will then be sent regular bills (often monthly, or less often if not much happens in your case) and then be asked to top up the amount on account. Money on account is kept in a separate bank account and the solicitor cannot touch it until you have been sent a bill. Until then it remains your money. The solicitor’s bill will also include any expenses, such as court fees, expert fees and barrister’s fees.
Barristers specialise in one or two areas of law. They mainly do two things:
The solicitor will send the barrister written instructions (or a “brief” if it is for a hearing), which is a document summarising the case and setting out the issues that the barrister needs to advise on or bear in mind when representing the client at court. This will also enclose copies of all relevant documents and correspondence in the case.
Barristers work in chambers, which are effectively shared offices. In London they are traditionally based in or around the Inns of Court around Chancery Lane. They have clerks, who deal with the administration of the chambers and negotiate the barristers’ fees. They have meeting rooms and mostly a desk in a shared room because they are not there a lot of the time, but in the library doing legal research, at court or in a conference. In some chambers (especially those dealing with criminal law) barristers hot-desk.
Some barristers receive a special recognition of seniority from the government and the title Queen’s Counsel. This does not in fact mean that they work for the Queen, but it gives them the right to put “QC” behind their name and wear different gowns (with silk trimmings so QCs are sometimes called “silk”). In complex cases and appeals a QC would sometimes work together with another barrister who is not a QC (a “junior counsel” as opposed to a QC, who is a “senior counsel”) and both would charge separate fees. However, QC can now also act alone. It is very competitive to be awarded the title QC and there are many experienced and very good barristers who do not get the title. Each year many barristers apply and only a small number are made QCs.
Barristers’ overheads are generally lower than those of solicitors and their hourly rates are also therefore generally lower. Nevertheless, your solicitor will in most cases negotiate a flat fee each time your barrister is instructed, e.g. a conference to advise you or a hearing. For hearings that last more than a day, barristers tend to charge a “brief fee” for the preparation and the first day and any conference just before the hearing, and a “refresher” for each further day, which is usually lower. Sometimes the clerks will only quote a fee once the barrister has had a look at the instructions or the brief and can say how many hours work will be involved. It will also of course depend on the seniority of the barrister. QCs charges are higher than those of other barristers.
A fee is usually payable for a hearing even if the hearing is cancelled, e.g. because the case settles at the last minute, because the barrister can then not find other work for the time kept free. The clerk will usually tell the solicitor when the brief for the hearing is deemed to be due.
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This is an outline of the law, practice and procedure in England and Wales. It should not be taken as specific advice. All families and couples are different. The law may have changed since this was written and we therefore accept no liability for inaccuracies. Where examples are given, your personal circumstances may vary slightly, but the difference may be significant for the outcome of the legal process. Contact us for specific advice on your own circumstances.
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