As published in Victoria Legal Aid Brief – Tuesday, 13 November 2018
A close working relationship between an instructing solicitor and a barrister in family law matters is vital to best serve the needs of our priority clients. Peninsula Community Legal Centre lawyer Chris Daniels and Barrister Marie Wilkening-Le Brun tell us about their productive working relationship.
Peninsula Community Legal Centre lawyer Chris Daniels
Upon being admitted to practise as a lawyer, I worked in private practice as a generalist lawyer for 12 years, before focusing on family law. I decided to represent legally aided clients as I became disenfranchised with the private practice emphasis on billable hours, and the fact that the level of assistance that I could provide to a client was often dictated by their capacity to pay. In addition, much of my family law work was focused on complex property settlement matters, with little focus on the human side of the matter.
I applied for a job at Peninsula Community Legal Centre, where I was already volunteering as a family lawyer within a new family law pilot program funded by Victoria Legal Aid. The majority of my clients within the pilot needed to obtain a grant of legal aid, and I applied for the role as I wished to assist clients, regardless of their capacity to pay.
The most rewarding aspect of my career is being able to assist clients who do not have the resources to pay for a private lawyer, and who have often lost hope that their protective concerns about their children will be addressed.
I also enjoy being able to occasionally help clients obtain a small family law property settlement that can assist them in starting a new life with their children, and focusing on their needs.
Priority clients often have anxiety issues that are exacerbated by court and can struggle to understand what is going on during proceedings, so I find great satisfaction in explaining what is happening and allaying their fears.
I have briefed Marie often and appreciate the respect she has for our community legal centre clients who frequently cannot get assistance elsewhere. She has regularly been willing to go above and beyond to assist our clients – with strategy, drafting further affidavits or submissions – when many other barristers would be content to settle.
I have always admired Marie’s polite, respectful and professional interaction with our clients. She makes an effort to tell them that she is there for them and will do her best to represent their interests.
She also goes to great lengths to explain to the client how the court process is unfolding that day, what the other party and the independent children’s lawyer are saying and the effect this has on the client’s position in the proceedings, which is something many clients struggle to understand.
Marie’s willingness to spend as much time as is required in a matter and not rushing a client has not gone unnoticed. In fact, many clients have expressed to me that they felt comfortable with Marie on account of her listening to their problem, rather than rushing them out the door.
It is for these reasons that I have briefed Marie in a variety of matters, and will continue to do so.
Barrister Marie Wilkening-Le Brun
I was admitted to practice as a solicitor in the UK in 2002, and worked at leading firms in commercial law. During my training in 2000, I was fortunate to sit (as it is called in the UK) for six months in the family law department of the firm Hewitsons in Cambridge. It was then that I realised that even though I needed to obtain the work experience in any legal domain, I would stand out as a lawyer by working with people and solving their most personal problems.
The most important advice I can give a solicitor in preparing a brief for trial is to involve counsel early.
It is best to ask counsel to review the final affidavits prior to them being filed. But this is not just for the affidavits, it is to discuss the strategy. Sometimes as a solicitor, your time is divided with multiple clients and their high needs, and it can be a challenge to meet the deadlines imposed. Therefore, I cannot overemphasise the benefit of asking counsel to give an opinion in respect of a brief. This opinion does not have to be in writing, and can even be a telephone conversation asking counsel for their view of the case. I particularly enjoy working with my solicitor as a team and utilising them as my right hand.
I enjoy the special relationship I share with the team at Peninsula Community Legal Centre, and that Chris does seek my opinion early when preparing an upcoming case. It is particularly beneficial for the client that their solicitor and counsel are thinking about the best strategy for them well ahead of time, rather than having to make some quick and possibly regrettable decisions later on at court.
Chris’ briefs are always well prepared with proper instructions to counsel. I particularly like how his instructions to counsel and court material is well organised. It is these little things, which demonstrate the mutual respect we have towards each other, that benefits the client, and ensures they receive the best representation possible.
Skills that are essential for dealing with Victoria Legal Aid and community legal centre clients include empathy, good listening skills, communicating in simple language, ability to manage stress (yours and the clients), being a fearless voice for your client, and providing open, honest and respectful advice.
I enjoy my work and feel that I have found my calling.
I often get text messages and emails of gratitude from clients thanking me for representing them in court. This appreciation has no dollar value, and yet I derive great satisfaction from knowing I was able to advocate passionately and courageously on a client’s behalf, tell their side of the story and make a tangible difference in their life.