Lawyer Alistair McDonald tells Tom Scotney of his TV mission for greater understanding.
As family lawyer Alistair MacDonald notes: “If someone who’s just lost their kid comes up and tells me I’m a w*****, I understand that. I understand that entirely and I don’t take offence because I’m pretty sure if the roles were reversed I’d do the same thing.”
You don’t tend to make friends with clients as a family lawyer.
One of Alistair MacDonald’s barrister friends was head butted by an angry father in court. But he says the one thing that has constantly amazed him during his successful career has been how surprisingly accepting people are of the legal profession when they are at their most vulnerable.
And he will be appearing on the BBC tonight in an attempt to demystify a profession often misunderstood by the public.
Barristers, on BBC 2 tonight, features Alistair in a star turn, following the family lawyer, along with St Philips colleague Louise McCabe, dealing with cases of divorce, child care and abuse around Birmingham.
The two barristers are some of the best-known faces in family law in Birmingham.
But as a young student in Nottingham University, the young Alistair MacDonald always saw himself more as Indiana Jones than Kavanagh,QC.
“I did a degree in archaeology at Nottingham, and I was an archaeologist for three years after I graduated,” he says.
“I had a place to do a PhD, but I couldn’t find any funding and I was getting sick of sitting in a muddy hole in Derbyshire getting rained on.
“At the time you could get a PhD but you couldn’t get any funding for looking down a microscope at flint chips for three years. I was looking for something else, but I can’t honestly say why I settled on the Bar.
“After I’d done a pupillage I think I was bitten by the bug – really it’s such a fascinating world, so different to anything I’d come across before, and seeing these men and women standing up in court and arguing their points and fighting their cases seemed like a really amazing thing to do for a living.
‘‘I had to convert so I spent a couple of years in London and then came up here.
“As a family lawyer you get to meet pretty much everybody, from high court judges to people who are struggling with heroin and alcohol addiction, and seeing that vast spectrum of people as part of your daily job keeps it interesting.”
After taking the course, Alistair was offered a pupillage at No.2 Fountain Court, a precursor of St Philips, where he has been ever since for the past 13 years.
He credits his supervisors at St Philips for leading him into family law, specialising in cases involving children. He now works solely in child protection work.
And he soon found working in family law could be a stressful experience.
“I’ve never had any trouble, not to the point of violence, even though I’ve had one friend who was head butted in court by an angry father,” he says.
“I think one of the things that’s always amazed me is how people as a matter of course don’t shout at you or spit at you or get angry.
‘‘I think they recognise you’re just doing a job and if you do it with courtesy and you do it with professionalism I think they recognise that.
“The situations you see are emotional and sad and tragic and heart wrenching in a lot of cases, but I think the reality is you have to maintain a professional outlook.
‘‘Your client does not need you upset for them, they need you fighting for them. You do have cases where you go home at the end of the day feeling completely emotionally drained.
“I understand and I empathise with the trials and tribulations of the people I see, but you have to maintain your distance to do your job properly.
‘‘I suspect some people would see it as quite a sort of cold outlook and I also suspect people seeing it from the outside wouldn’t understand how we can maintain it, but I don’t think it’s a question so much of how we do it as we must do it.”
And while he claims he loves the job so much he would do it for free if he had to, he says the system all people working in social services have to operate in has been stripped to the bone.
The recent tragic case around the death of Baby P has exposed some of the failures of the care system.
And Alistair said he has watched organisations at every stage dealing with child care come under pressure as budgets are cut.
He says: “I’m very rarely if ever frustrated by the cases themselves.
‘‘We have, I think, a very good set of people working in family justice from judges and solicitors to doctors we have good people, what frustrates me is the system.
‘‘It’s a human system and all human systems are fallible, but the people in system work but the lack of resources makes that job so much harder.
“For my part the system has in that we are required to do more and more with less and less. It seems to me that its getting harder and harder to keep the same social worker on the case throughout.
‘‘Its more difficult to appoint a children’s guardian in a timely fashion, it’s more difficult to get funding for residential assessment, so families that could be kept together with a little effort fall apart because the money for it isn’t available.
“There’s going to be a breaking point. There comes a point where no matter how efficient we are how, and how hard we work, where you don’t have enough to do what you need to do.
‘‘It’s a matter of political will more than anything else– the problem is this requires long term change, a programme that is longer than a political cycle.
“I don’t think we can just say we are entitled to as much money as we want, but I think the thing for me is if you get it right at this stage – if you get it right with kids that have been damaged by abuse; if you get it right with kids that have come from a broken home; if you get it right with children who have had a really poor start in life and get them back on the right path, you save money down the line in criminal justice and in health.
“I think if we could just get the Government to see that long term view, I think that might change things.”
Despite the problems with the system, Alistair said he was still proud to work in family law, despite the profession, and that of barristers as a whole often having a bad image.
He said he hoped tonight’s TV documentary, filmed over the course of a few months around Birmingham, would help people to understand what the job involved.
“The head here just asked a few of us if we were interested, and of course we, being egomaniacs, jumped at the chance,” he says. “And then I sat down and thought about it after going home and telling my wife ‘I’m going to be on telly, there’ll be a camera crew following me around, it’ll be amazing!’, I sat down and thought ‘I’m not entirely sure’, and it took me a long time to decide.
“People do think we’re an ivory tower profession – made up of mainly middle-class white males who went to Oxbridge. In fact that couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s an incredibly eclectic place, with people from all sorts of backgrounds.
“I think people don’t know a lot about the bar because not many people have to come in contact with it.
“You only have to come into contact with the bar when your life is pretty difficult – if you come into contact with a criminal barrister or if you come into contact with a family barrister then something’s gone wrong somewhere.
“It’s a mix of the fact that people don’t come into contact with us and that we don’t really publicise ourselves.
“We sort of exist. I like to think we’re fundamental to society’s foundations, but we sort of exist in the background, and I think that’s allowed myths and misunderstandings to build up around the bar.”