Skip to main content
BPP University BPP Professional Education | Tel: 0330 060 3444

First Steps: Starting My Training Contract with the BPP Pro Bono Centre

by Frankie Hall, Trainee Solicitor

I started my training contract with the BPP Pro Bono Centre in September 2021. As I finish my first six months in this role, I have been reflecting on my experiences.

I have worked at BPP for six years, beginning in the Customer Service department and then in the Product Setup team while completed my academic legal training. In 2019 I moved to London to take a role with Pro Bono team as the Pro Bono Administrator. I was able to gain excellent legal experience volunteering in the Legal Advice Clinic, with Streetlaw, and through managing my own pro bono projects while completing my LPC. I was delighted to be offered a training contract with the Pro Bono Centre in 2021, and started the final stage of my journey to becoming a solicitor in September.

First Case

My first area of law was family. I had studied family law as an elective module during the LPC, and I had also volunteered with the BPP Family Clinic. I felt confident that I had good background knowledge in family law. However, I knew that taking on a caseload of my own clients would be a huge step up in terms of practical legal skills.

My first case involved advising a client on child arrangements procedure. My client had experienced domestic abuse during her relationship with the father of her children, and was finding it difficult to make appropriate arrangements for her child to have contact with their father. My client also wanted advice on whether she could take her child abroad, or relocate to another area in the UK without the father’s permission. This was a useful first case to advise on, as it covered a broad range of issues that are a family solicitor’s bread and butter – parental responsibility, child arrangements orders and specific issue orders. However, the case also gave me the opportunity to advise on two matters that would become common threads throughout my work in the Family clinic: firstly, giving practical advice to people struggling to work through family breakdown on how they could resolve their issues without resorting to court; and secondly, helping a client who has experienced domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is endemic in this area of practice. Family lawyers must act with sensitivity when dealing with both survivors and perpetrators, but also to have a good practical and up to date knowledge of the options open to domestic abuse survivors to get help, both during the court process and in their own lives.

Biggest Challenge

My biggest challenge during my training contact so far has been advocacy. I was eager to get started in this key area of practice: as part of my training contract plan I will be taking the Higher Rights course in my second year. I started small, with my first experience on my feet in front of a magistrates’ court at reasonably straightforward directions hearing. The Pro Bono Centre has excellent links with Advocate, the Bar pro bono organisation, and later I had the opportunity to observe and learn from more experienced counsel in similar hearings.

In November I had an exciting opportunity to speak in the High Court before Mr Justice Mostyn. The case related to child abduction. Our client was a litigant in person, and as the case was in the High Court we could not represent the client directly. However, I and a Student Director from the Family Clinic were permitted to act as Mckenzie Friends, taking notes and offering administrative and emotional support to the client. At the end of the first day of the hearing, a new piece of evidence was produced by the other side in the case. My supervisor felt that in light of the potential serious effect of this piece of evidence, we should ask for permission to make representations. The judge kindly granted permission for me to speak and I made representations on the evidence and the potential effect on the client. The experience was highly nerve wracking, particularly speaking in front of such a senior judge.

In December I took on my first serious piece of advocacy work. In this case the father had applied for contact with the children, and my client, the mother, had made allegations that she had been abused by the father during their marriage. The court determined that a fact-finding hearing would be needed on these allegations before a decision on contact could be made. To prepare for the hearing, I first assisted my client in drafting a schedule of allegations. Following the guidance in Re H-N and Others [2021] EWCA CV 448, the judge had ordered and my client had previously submitted a witness statement describing the experience of her relationship with the father.

I knew that I needed to deal carefully with my client while taking her through her evidence. While it was important the judge was able to evaluate my client’s honesty by hearing from her directly, it was also important that as her advocate I remained in control. I planned open questions to allow her to speak about her experiences directly and made sure to deal with each allegation chronologically.

Cross examination of the father was a huge challenge. The father disputed all of the allegations, and although there was some evidence, in most cases the allegations were “he said, she said”. I knew that I needed to the demonstrate to the judge that at the very least she should not weigh the father’s evidence as strongly as the mother’s. I felt that my strategy was successful when I was able to show that the father had said the mother had a mental health condition that the medical evidence showed she did not suffer from. In my summing up I was able to point to this as evidence of his dishonesty. In her judgement, the judge found all of my client’s allegations to be proven.

I was able to improve my advocacy skills by attending the Advocacy module of my Professional Skills Course in January 2022. This three day course was hugely beneficial, with our trainer giving us excellent advice from his personal experience as an advocate as well as opportunities to practice our skills through a mock trial.

What I’ve learned

Clients in family law can be particularly vulnerable. Working with clients who have experienced domestic abuse and traumatic family breakdown has taught me how to interview clients with care, compassion and focus. Clients in this area are made more vulnerable by their inability to access legal advice, primarily because of financial barriers. Although some legal aid is available to victims of domestic abuse, there has been a 24% rise in cases where neither party in the family court has representation from 2013 to 2021 (Family Court Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2021, National Statistics). Despite the best efforts of judges, magistrates and lawyers, litigants in person can struggle to comply with court directions and represent themselves effectively – with potentially disastrous effects for both parties and any children in the case. This reinforced for me the importance of the service of free legal advice that the BPP Legal Advice Clinic provides. I look forward to continuing to help our clients as I continue my training contract.