Yesterday I spent the day at Cardiff Family Court. I attended as a legal blogger, making use of the new Reporting Pilot which launched on Monday (having been unable to attend earlier in the week).
I observed two hearings, and I will be able to write a bit about those hearings in due course (watch this space), but in this short post I thought I would summarise my more general experiences and my initial observations about how the pilot works in practice.
I had earmarked this day some time ago as one of two which I would keep free for legal blogging. However, this didn’t mean I was able to plan my day or give advance notice of which case I wanted to observe as I would have preferred. As I will explain….
The first day’s planned legal blogging fell by the wayside. Firstly, I discovered late on Tuesday afternoon that there wasn’t a great deal on the not-very-informative list (I managed to check it during a break whilst at court late on another matter), and I therefore notified the court that I was going to attend, but was currently considering attending a non-pilot case. This prompted an email from the court the following informing me that the only case I could attend was the single pilot case on the list. I took the opportunity to politely correct this misunderstanding of the rules (I was entitled to attend non-pilot cases, but was ‘at risk’ as to whether or not I’d be permitted to report them), which was accepted as correct and taken in good grace. However, when I woke on Wednesday morning I was feeling under the weather and (mindful of the fact there was a train strike and the perils of Cardiff rush hour traffic), I decided I would give Cardiff a miss, in the hope I’d feel better on Thursday and there would be more on the list. I didn’t especially want to put additional pressure on court staff or judiciary in the first week of the pilot by attending cases they were not expecting me to attend when they were all still getting to grips with the pilot itself.
I spent much of Wednesday afternoon refreshing the Courtserve court lists page until finally, some little while after 4pm the list for Thursday appeared. It showed only a very few cases that looked likely to be a part of the pilot (the lists don’t differentiate, you have to make an educated guess), and as it was nearly 5pm by the time I was able to ascertain this, I decided to see what I could find out on the day before confirming to the court which specific hearings I wanted to attend. In the initial stages of the pilot only certain categories of case (mainly care cases) are covered by the pilot, and cases heard by magistrates are also excluded. There were 2 care cases (identifiable by a ‘C’ as the fifth digit in the case number). One was before the Designated Family Judge, HHJ Furness KC and although it was marked on the list as ‘6 hours’ I knew from other sources that this was in fact day 4 of a 5 day case. I was not keen on attending day 4 of a case without observing days 1-3 or 5. But in fact, on arrival I was told that case had finished early and all that remained to be done was for the judge to ‘hand down’ his judgment. I decided not to attend this hand down, partly because I was aware from the transparency order that the court had sent me that there was a deferred reporting order in place.
So I looked to other cases on the list. By chance I found out that another case on the same judge’s list was a Deprivation of Liberty application. I had assumed from the ‘P’ (private law) case number, that this would not be a case I was currently able to report under the pilot, forgetting that DoL applications often fall under a private law ‘P’ number. In fact this was a case that I could both attend and report, and I did so.
Until relatively recently, court lists would be marked with some sort of wording such as ‘sitting as a s9 judge’ to indicate where a court was using High Court powers, which would have alerted me to the fact that this might be a DoL case, but the newish listing system used seems to strip away that sort of useful information. Similarly, until recently, a list would have given the time estimate for the whole hearing rather than the time estimate on that single day i.e. it would have said ‘day 4 of 5’ rather than simply ‘6 hours’. Now a multi-day hearing is indistinguishable from a single day hearing and all are shown as ‘6 hours’. This is not helpful when trying to plan which hearings to observe and consequently when trying to do the parties and the court the courtesy of giving them advance notice – which is not a requirement of the rules or the pilot, but is probably generally helpful, because it enables the lawyers to alert, advise and reassure their clients before the hearings starts and can minimise delay and anxiety.
I also identified a third case, a case management hearing at 2pm before another judge. Since I was at court first thing I was able to hang around until I saw the clerk for that court pop out and let her know that I was intending to observe. She was very polite and helpful, confessing that it was all a bit new and she needed to check the process. Even though I had given the court clerk notice on arrival at court that morning, and came back over an hour before the hearing was due to start to check in and let her know I was back and still coming, I was not able to obtain any copy documents before the hearing started at 2pm, nor confirmation as to whether there was any objection to my attendance (there wasn’t in the end), and it seemed as if the message that I was attending had not reached all participants until just before the hearing at 2pm, which was a shame (as best I can tell was only a result of one of the advocates having forgotten to bring his laptop to court, whilst court staff were assuming he’d have checked his email – so I don’t think it was for lack of trying!).
What struck me in the course of the day was that everyone was perfectly polite and genuinely striving to be helpful. The judges seemed well prepared and proactive, and ready to deal firmly but fairly with any pushback (which was minimal). Sorting out the transparency order did add a little time to each hearing I attended, but my sense is much of this is due to the fact that this is a learning process for all involved – it will become more routine and more efficient over time. Again, if I’d been able to effectively pre-warn the lawyers I’d like to think they’d have been ready to efficiently inform the court there was no objection in principle, to share the documents before we started all without any material delay to the start of the hearing (leaving any fine detail of the transparency order to be dealt with once we’d heard what was said, understood the issues and worked out which bits seemed important to be able to report). Again, listing issues are key to making things work smoothly in the hearing itself.
Compared to my pre-pilot experience of legal blogging I had reasonable access to documents. In addition, I had relatively prompt access to the transparency order, was given an opportunity to make representations as to its terms (which in one of the cases facilitated reporting where there would otherwise have been none until many months hence), and all the lawyers were affable and open minded about what I was doing. They asked questions about legal blogging out of genuine interest. They were equally courteous to the reporter who attended the afternoon hearing with me (even after he told them he was attending on behalf of the Daily Mail!).
There were no fireworks: I didn’t hear any shocking evidence or uncover any awful secrets of the Family Court. But I think this was a reasonably encouraging first outing for legal blogging under the new pilot. The day was topped off by a quick Uber-dash over to the University where Julie Doughty and I, with help from other remote members of the Transparency Project, hosted a zoom training event for would-be legal bloggers. There were some really interesting and challenging questions posed by those attending and lots of enthusiasm for the work of legal blogging, so I spent my train journey home thinking positive thoughts about expanding our ranks and being able to shine a light in a few more corners of the Family Court over time – the good bits, the bad bits and the plain ugly bits too.
I’ll be writing up my blog posts about the two cases I observed in coming days. They won’t be ground breaking or even very exciting, but they will open the window a crack on some of the range of work that Family Courts are dealing with, and the ways in which the professionals and judges deal with those difficult cases.
I’d like to sign off by thanking the mother who (after understandably having a moment of reluctance) agreed that I should be allowed to attend and listen to her case, and to report on it. I’d like also to thank all the judges and professionals who welcomed me to Cardiff yesterday. It was quite the least stressful day’s legal blogging I’ve ever had! Nobody looked at me like I had two heads, which is always a bonus.