Christie O’Connell: “The lack of legal aid is a bad financial decision, because people don’t have access to sensible advice.”

The family law barrister takes Vada behind the scenes of the legal world of divorce, and how she feels the lack of legal aid in this country means many people don’t always have access to sensible legal advice.

My walk down Chancery Lane towards where I’m meeting Christie O’Connell for our interview today immerses me in the legal world. There are shops housing some of London’s oldest tailors and windows filled with clothing described in these parts of town as ‘legal dress’. Then I come across The Maughan Library, an imposing building that forms part of King’s College London and O’Connell’s alma mater, and finally, The Law Society building and the Royal Courts of Justice.

Having lost my way somewhere amongst the various almost-identical looking chambers, the offices which house barristers and their clerks, I finally stumble across the sign I’m looking for: 1 Hare Court. It leads me between two buildings and a cobbled path across a private garden.

I am greeted in reception by O’Connell moments later, who is wearing a navy-blue satin pussy-bow blouse and a pair of converse, and we walk up to a first floor conference room. The white table that lines the centre of the room, with grey leather chairs on either side, has a tray of biscuits and chocolates on it. As O’Connell makes herself a coffee from the coffee machine at one end of the room, I remark how the glamorous setup reminds me of The Split, the BBC legal drama about divorce lawyers. “Oh, this is The Split!” laughs O’Connell.

(Priyan Odedra/Vada Magazine)

As a barrister who specialises in family law and matrimonial finance (money and divorce), O’Connell is the lawyer responsible for representing her clients in court during arguably one of the most difficult times in their lives. She was called to The Bar in 2022 and completed her pupillage at 1 Hare Court, where she has continued to work as a barrister since. There are times in the interview when I need to stop O’Connell and ask her what various legal terms mean. She smiles and tells me it all “can sound a bit odd.” For instance, in the legal world, she is known as a “baby” or perhaps another way of putting it might be, a recently-qualified barrister.

Yet despite only being qualified for a few years, O’Connell is already making a name for herself in this highly competitive arena. Raised in Manchester, she moved down to London for university, graduating with a first from King’s College London, where she met her wife and read Religion and Politics. O’Connell then moved back up to Manchester, where she took on a law conversion course at BPP Law School, during the pandemic, and was awarded a distinction. Somewhere along the way, O’Connell lost her Mancunian accent, with her mum asking her why she is “speaking like that” whenever she’s back home.

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Once called to the Bar and back in London, her pupillage was decorated with the Jarman Advocacy Prize, awarded to the best advocate in the 2022/23 cohort of Inner Temple Pupils. And if that wasn’t enough, her involvement with the LGBTQ+ barrister network, FreeBar, saw her being profiled by DIVA, as one of 25 lawyers in the magazine’s Legally Lesbian feature.

(Priyan Odedra/Vada Magazine)

Whilst O’Connell takes a sip of her coffee, I tell her how impressive this all sounds. She laughs and says I should see her office. As a pupil (or newly-qualified barrister) she would sit alongside her pupil supervisor, an experienced barrister assigned to mentor her during her first year in the job. Now a qualified barrister, she and another ‘baby’ have their own desk in the attic. The ceilings, she tells me, are slightly lower than down here on the first floor. But I can tell she enjoys the camaraderie of sharing an office with a fellow recently-qualified barrister; especially in a job as daunting as this one.

Standing up in a courtroom, the responsibility of a client’s divorce in her hands, I ask O’Connell if she ever gets nervous. “I’m more physically nervous, than in my head nervous,” she explains. “I get that feeling of the jitters, almost like a nervous excitement.” Her way of countering that is by meticulous preparation. She thinks about every single argument she wants to make on behalf of her client, even when she knows that most of the time she won’t get through all of her points before the judge will ask a question. “But at least you’ve thought about it.”

Having always found families and finance interesting, opting for a legal career in family finance felt like an ideal fit. “I find it quite intellectually challenging, in the way that other aspects of family law, perhaps aren’t as much,” she says. “With family law and financial remedies, you get to deal with interesting trusts and business structures, offshore accounts and tax. You get to deal with a lot of those commercial areas of law, without having to be a commercial lawyer.” She was also drawn to family law, as it typically allows barristers to have more time in court, compared with other legal fields.

The choice of legal field for a barrister is also a practical one. Like most barristers, O’Connell is self-employed. She is part of a set of chambers, where a team of clerks are hard at work trying to find barristers work, and broker a good deal between solicitors and counsel; yet the profession of a barrister can still be financially precarious. She explains that payment of fees can be delayed, having just received payment for a case she worked on a year ago. Criminal defence law, for instance, can seem like an exciting and attractive option from the outside and might have tempted her, yet practically it didn’t appeal to O’Connell. “I think criminal defence law is on the brink of collapse,” she tells me. “I just don’t think it’s financially viable.”

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(Priyan Odedra/Vada Magazine)

During a typical week, O’Connell will be working on around three cases. “So I’ll be in court two or three times per week, which compared with friends who are also barristers, isn’t a lot,” she says. At her Chambers, the barristers have more “prep days” than elsewhere, which means that while they may spend less time in court compared to other family law barristers, their clients know that their case has been thoroughly prepared. “I think that’s one of the reasons why clients like being represented by counsel at 1 Hare Court,” she adds. “They know that they’ll be represented by somebody who preps the case properly.” She will also spend her week meeting with solicitors who have been working on the case until it is brought to court.

The duration of each case can vary, and when it comes to an FDR (Financial Dispute Resolution) hearing, this involves O’Connell spending a day in court negotiating with the barrister representing the other partner in the case. It’s something that she enjoys, because it involves sometimes coming up with creative solutions to complex family situations. Prior to the case coming to court, however, a lot of work has gone into ensuring that all parties have disclosed their finances and assets, or “knowing how much is in the pot, and where it’s going” as O’Connell puts it.

A recent FDR is playing on her mind on the day of our interview. It comes up when I ask her about what is at stake when representing clients in court. “I think, and it’s always been my issue, is that I can sometimes get too emotionally invested” she tells me. If negotiations with the opposing barrister during the FDR fall through, and the case is taken to a final hearing, this could be to the detriment of both parties.

O’Connell says she is always concerned about the financial ramifications of a final hearing for both her client and the wider family at the centre of the case, especially when the legal fees for a final hearing could take a sizeable chunk from the family’s assets. What’s more, as a judge makes the decision when an FDR is taking to a final hearing, the decision is often the easiest option, rather than one that best option for the unique circumstances of that family.

The financial remedies of her clients is not the only matter she is concerned about when it comes to legal representation. The financial hardship of many, means that they simply cannot afford representation in the first place. It’s something that O’Connell and her colleagues are acutely aware of. Legal aid is, as she puts it, “a mess” and whilst her chambers do not undertake legal aid work, she does help those in financial difficulty elsewhere. As a member of Advocate, the Bar’s pro bono charity, she receives email requests asking if she or fellow members can help with cases, and tries to help out whenever she can.

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(Priyan Odedra/Vada Magazine)

O’Connell also volunteers at the Islington legal advice clinic, alongside other lawyers, who spend an hour trying to get through as many cases as they can. However, time is something that many lawyers do not have in abundance. “There wouldn’t be a need for any of these things, if we had better legal aid in this country,” she argues. “From what I see, the lack of legal aid is a bad financial decision, because it means that people don’t have access to sensible advice. They might drag something out for so long, but if you have sensible advice at the beginning, you might just be able to sort it without even going to court.” She and fellow lawyers are currently “plugging the gaps” in the system, but it is clear that this is hardly a sustainable solution.

I get the sense that O’Connell cares passionately about her clients and their wellbeing, as well as how she develops a professional working relationship with them and gains their trust. When I ask her about her experiences of being ‘out’ with clients, she tells me it has been an overall positive experience. “But I know that I come from a place of privilege. I’m white, middle class, and I’m able to be straight presenting,” she says.

O’Connell feels that being gay at the Bar is generally accepted, yet trans acceptance has a long way to go. “The biggest issue is how our trans siblings are accepted,” she adds. “It seems, in a way, how being gay used to be a taboo, and now being trans is a taboo. There’s been a few issues with that at the Bar, and I think that’s what needs addressing urgently.”

Trans acceptance and visibility within the legal field is something that O’Connell and other committee members are attempting to achieve with FreeBar, the LGBTQ+ barristers network. She first came into contact with the network when she was a pupil, eventually joining as a committee member. “A lot of the committee are quite established and very busy with their stellar careers, so they wanted someone who was more junior and could reach out to the more junior end of the Bar,” explains O’Connell. In addition to organising social events and career mentoring, she hopes to encourage pupils and other recently-qualified LGBTQ+ barristers to join the network.

Reflecting on her career to date, O’Connell adds that, perhaps by coincidence, she has represented a number of LGBTQ+ clients in the short space of time that she has been working as a barrister. “It’s quite nice to just be able to say something about my wife, or something that signals that I’m gay,” she says, adding her openness with clients allows her to gain their trust. “I don’t know, maybe I just allow them to open up more and be more relaxed about it.”

Christie O’Connell is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photographed by Priyan Odedra. Christie is a barrister at 1 Hare Court and a committee member of FreeBar, a network that aims to foster inclusion and support for LGBT+ people working as and with barristers.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.