Helen Blog Post

I am delighted to be your President for the next 12 months.  For those of you who do not know me, I am a family solicitor and a Director at Helen Fitzsimons Family Law.  Other than being part of the local Law Society committee, I am also a member of the Sussex Law Society, a Board Member of the Sussex Family Justice Board and a member of the local Collaborative Pod and Mediators group.

Those that were available to attend enjoyed the AGM and Foundation Dinner on 23rd November 2018.  It was held at the Chichester Cathedral and I thank everyone for contributing to such a wonderful evening.  I thought it would be helpful to circulate my speech for the evening :

‘Members, honoured guests and friends.

It is a real privilege for me to be able to stand here and welcome you as President of the Chichester and District Law Society. As someone born and bred in Chichester and who has worked here on and off for some 30 years, I am honoured and excited and to pick up the baton and run with it for the next 12 months.

I would like to thank our sponsors for this evening.  PSG have sponsored this event for a number of years and I welcome Chris Green as their representative and I thank them for their continued support for which we are very grateful.  Pallant Chambers have also supported our Society not only by sponsoring and attending our annual dinner but by providing training to our members from time to time and again the Society is grateful to Alister Williams and his wonderful team of clerks and barristers. 

In addition to Chris and Alister, I would like to welcome Jackie Mensah who is President of Worthing Law Society, Cerys Sayer who represents the Sussex Law Society, Gary Chapman our guest from CILex and Francesca Wiley QC from 1 Garden Court.

Margaret Windram has been our President for the last 12 months and on behalf of the Committee and members I extend a big thanks to her for her hard work in this role.   

These are interesting times for our profession. :

We are now gearing up to Brexit day, or perhaps not – the future regarding this and our current Prime Minister seems to change from hour to hour at the moment.

Data-Protection and Transparency are key words at present and no sooner have we relaxed having got ourselves GDPR compliant we are now updating our web-sites with our complaints policies and pricing structures.

Access to justice is a concern for many – One of the pillars of our welfare state system, Legal Aid, introduced in 1949 is being dismantled.  Lord Wilson recently explained when talking about our Government “Even where it is required to continue to provide free legal aid, for example to defendants to criminal charges and to parents threatened with the removal of their children, the UK is dismantling it indirectly by setting rates of remuneration for the lawyers at levels so uncommercial that, reluctantly, most of them feel unable to do that work. Access to justice is under threat in the UK.”

The court reform modernisation programme is also fully underway and the Chichester Court, as we know it, is closing before Christmas however the presence of justice remains in Chichester albeit at a new venue at East Pallant House thanks to the determined work of Edward Cooke and his colleagues at West Sussex Resolution along with Alister Williams, William Emerson and their colleagues at Pallant Chambers.

So, this is the backdrop of my presidential year but it is important to be positive and optimistic.

My aspirations for the next 12 months are firstly to promote diversity and encourage social mobility in the profession.  I left school in 1988 at the age of 17 and no-one in my family had been to university.  It was therefore not a route I was encouraged to go down.  However, I wanted a career in the legal profession.  I therefore joined Wannops straight from A levels, started an evening course at Chichester College and embarked upon a wonderful but at times challenging journey.  Having qualified as a Legal Executive, undertaking the same work as Solicitors but without anywhere near the same recognition or salary, it seemed absolutely necessary for me to continue studying and working to qualify as a Solicitor which I finally did in 1996.  I am grateful for the Legal Executive route and delighted that our colleagues at CILex are now able to be Partners in firms and, where they have management responsibility, are able to join our Society.  I look forward to working with CILex this year and continuing the mutually beneficial and supportive relationship that we enjoy. 

Secondly, as a family and children’s lawyer I am committed to ensure access to justice so that we can to protect the vulnerable and disempowered in our society.  The Law Society is consulting with panels on the government’s review of legal aid.  I believe that the current lack of free early legal advice can cause problems to escalate unnecessarily which is harmful for the individuals involved as well as increasing the burden on courts and the cost to the public purse – we are all in the field of family law acutely aware of the number of litigants in person and the impact of this on the system. 

Likewise access to a Court is becoming harder for everyone but the impact is greatest on the most vulnerable members of our society.  The Chichester Court at Southgate is closing but a Court is going to be maintained on a regular basis, guaranteed for the next 2 years, sitting at the Chichester District Council offices at East Pallant.  Looking forward we are awaiting a listing policy so that we can be sure that Judges, Court administration and Practitioners are fully aware of the cases that should be listed in Chichester and we can ensure that this Court is fully utilised to protect this valuable resource for our community for the future.

Finally, the pace of communication, the expectations of clients and other professionals and the expectations of our regulatory bodies appear to be at a worrying level.  We are expected to be available and respond to email and telephone calls not only during working hours but outside of this alongside remaining compliant with regulation.  This puts pressure on ourselves, our health, and our professional relationships with each other.  We need to look after ourselves but also need to look out for each other and as a Society we are looking to set up local breakfast meetings which not only will provide information and advice for local professionals but also provide a networking and support opportunity. 

I am fortunate to have supportive family, friends and colleagues.  We are lucky to have a supportive membership and a hardworking committee.  At these times it is important to remember those supportive friends who are no longer with us.  For me this is to remember Nadine Byrnes.  For those of you who didn’t know Nadine, she was a family solicitor, Partner at EJ Moyle and a member of our Society and we sadly lost her to cancer last year. Nadine was kind, supportive and collaborative with everyone and she had the most loving and supportive heart with a wicked sense of humour.  Nadine was loved and respected by her clients and colleagues and she was a wonderful friend not only to me but I know to others in the room.’

My plan is to write another Blog in the Spring.  In the meanwhile, the Committee and I are here to serve you so if you have any ideas, concerns, points you wish us to raise with the Law Society or if you wish to become a member of the Committee please contact me or anyone else on the Committee and we will be happy to help.

Best wishes in advance for a Happy Christmas and New Year.