Yesterday, 1 October, was the first day of the new legal bloggers pilot. Having spent many hours persuading the powers that be that this was a good idea to try out, it seemed like the done thing to be there on Day One.
So, shortly before 10am I trotted from Chambers across to my local court (Bristol), armed with my practising certificate, my passport, some blank forms and the relevant rules and practice directions for good measure, and went to test the waters. This is my report of that first attempt at reporting from a family court hearing.
The First Floor ushers looked bemused. They had not heard about the scheme at all and teased me for causing trouble. We established that all the suitable hearings were on the Fourth Floor, where I found a member of court staff who hadread the email explaining the new scheme, and who explained it to his also bemused colleague. Ten points to John (I’ve made up his name to spare his blushes).
As I’d walked over to the court building, it had occurred to me that perhaps I would have some difficulty completing the form that required me to confirm no involvement in the case I wanted to see based on the case number alone. Fortunately I was able to see the case names before identifying appropriate cases (certain types of hearing don’t fall under the scheme). I selected a private law children ‘Dispute Resolution Appointment’ due to be heard by the magistrates and one or other of two ‘Issues Resolution Hearings’ (IRH) in a care case to be heard by a circuit judge (the Designated Family Judge). I thought this would give me a good spread of judges, case types and possibly a litigant in person hearing.
John copied my forms and made photocopies of my passport and practising certificate.
There was some initial confusion when the legal adviser for the magistrates called me in for ‘a chat’ to clarify whether or not I needed a letter from someone to come into court. She too had located the email to court staff, and together we worked through the practice direction until she was satisfied I’d produced everything required (I didn’t need a letter because I had produced my practising certificate). To my amusement, one of the magistrates, she said, had read my blog (Pink Tape) . As all this was happening, the clerk to the DFJ emerged and handed me some paperwork before disappearing back into the judicial corridor and I realised that this was my completed paperwork for the care case, which should have been provided to the judge and placed on the court file. By the time I left the magistrates hearing room the care case had been called in. I made the decision that it would not be a good idea to barge in part way through and argue the point, and waited for another IRH in the same judge’s list. In the meantime, John took it upon himself to try and get in touch with the clerk to the DFJ to ensure my forms could be resubmitted and that I could access the second hearing.
I had a while hanging around in the waiting area as both the judge and magistrates were tied up with other hearings. Because it was FHDRA day (First hearing dispute resolution appointment) and there were two magistrates court lists and a DFJ list running, the fourth floor was rammed and busy. It’s unusual for me to be hanging around a waiting area when not focusing on my own case, or chatting to colleagues involved in my case or another – on this occasion nobody needed to talk to me about an order and I had no client to look after so I could sit back and observe. It was difficult not to eavesdrop on conversations, and difficult for the lawyers, parents, social workers and Cafcass officers to conduct their conversations privately, although most tried. At one point the quiet murmur was broken when a grandmother waiting for her son to finish his hearing spoke loudly on her phone, putting it on speakerphone as she was struggling to hear from the headset. A well presented mother brought two smartly uniformed children to court and articulated forcefully to a softly spoken social worker that her children were old enough to make up their own minds. But today everybody seemed calm and collected; it is not always this way. Two young male clerks in matching natty blue suits, pointy brown lace ups and matching hair corralled lawyers with their clipboards.
Because it was unclear whether the return of my paperwork meant there was some problem with me coming into court, nor which case I was going to get called in on first, I made the decision not to approach those involved in the cases I wanted to observe at that stage. It seemed better to wait and see, than to approach people and interrupt discussions if there was a chance it would be a waste of their time.
Whilst I waited I checked and rechecked the Judiciary and Justice websites to see if the PD and forms had gone online – in fact they didn’t appear until lunchtime by which time I had already been and gone.
Eventually, the Judge finished his first case and I was called into court – So called in to explain myself twice in one morning, I thought, this is not a good start (although the legal adviser had been perfectly welcoming and there was never any suggestion of a problem). As I waited for the judge to come into court I had a sudden worry that the judge was going to say I couldn’t attend an IRH if it was exempt from the scheme as a ‘hearing conducted for the purposes of judge led conciliation’ or because it involved Part 14 (adoption) proceedings.
In fact, the judge wanted to apologise for the confusion about the first case, to chat about the practical operation of the scheme, and to ask if I had yet alerted the parties to my wish to come into court. I said I hadn’t but readily agreed to do so now I knew there was no issue with me coming in.
And so I went and located the lawyer for the local authority in the waiting area and went to introduce myself. She was sitting with most of the other lawyers in the case so I was able to explain it once only. They were clearly mid-discussion so after saying hello I bowed out leaving them to come and find me if required. Predictably, as I came back from a pitstop in the Ladies, I saw the tail end of the procession of parties into court and was able to tailgate into court behind them, securing an acknowledgment from the usher as I went.
HHJ Wildblood’s courtroom is huge. It is an intimidating courtroom to appear in as an advocate, and no doubt daunting for family members. It is an unusual sensation for a lawyer to sit at the back, watching the backs of people’s heads, unable to make eye contact with other lawyers along the row, and to not be constantly mentally adjusting my plan about what I need to say, when and how best to do it.
I’d made a deliberate decision today to keep things simple. I knew nothing about this case other than the case number, name and that it was listed for an IRH. The 2017 case number told me the case had been running for quite a long time, and the lawyers seemed to be having productive discussions outside court – but that was it.
At the outset of the hearing, seeing that one of the family members was looking round to try and work out who I was, the judge introduced me and gave a little explanation of the scheme and its importance in helping the work of the family court to be seen. He reassured the parties that no identifying information would be published and checked that there was no objection. There was none, and a positive acknowledgment in the form of a nod from one lawyer (who I know). I wasn’t quite sure whether the lawyers had had an opportunity to explain my presence to their clients outside court, but from their body language they seemed quite relaxed about me being there.
I can’t report the detail of the case, but suffice to say that this was the end of a long case, where everyone had ultimately agreed that the children should remain in the care of extended family members with support from childrens’ services. Whilst it was clear that there had been some complexity to the case that had led to the lengthy delay in finalising matters, what I saw was the culmination of the process and the feeling in the courtroom was overwhelmingly positive. The father was present and the judge spoke directly to him, of the need to support the children’s placement and the importance of his role as a father. Being a parent, said the judge, was the most important thing you can do in life, much more important than being a judge.
The judge had to resolve a minor issue between the parties about the detail of the order he should make. In doing so, he made some remarks about the case, which he described as a story of success even though the case had gone well beyond the usual 26 week time limit. He paid specific tribute to the social work team and the family for working together. He said that this particular social work team had carried out highly impressive work under enormous strain, and were a shining example of just how social work can and should be conducted. That message should be carried back to others. He gave credit to the family for being able to pull together to produce results. Thank you, he said, directly to the extended family member who was caring for the children, and present in court.
My sense was that the judge was aware that his words might be incorporated into any post I wrote up of the hearing, and perhaps even that they were said partly with the intention that they might be included – but as he was speaking, I realised that I would need to be sure that I was permitted to do so (rather than relying on a hunch!). This was all a bit daunting as I’d made a mental decision that on Day One I wouldn’t try anything clever like asking for permission to report what was said in the course of the hearing (which is broadly prohibited by s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 even if not identifying) and I had to make a quick decision about what to do. Should I think about it and email the judge and advocates to check there were no objections? No, that seemed to have potential for getting complicated and frustrating for all involved if there were any objections. I’d have to check before everyone left – but when and how should I do it? How could I achieve the necessary clarity without disrupting the hearing? I was typing my note and listening and processing all of this – and all of a sudden the hearing was drawing to a close and the judge was asking advocates for forms and people were pushing their chairs back to stand up. Deep breath. I stood up. It is surprisingly difficult to interrupt a hearing when you have no standing or right of audience as an advocate. Knowing you are doing your fearless best for a client is fortifying. Interrupting when you are meant to be quietly observing is quite jarring – especially when you have to shout across the heads of the parties to make yourself known. ‘Your Honour’ I barked. ‘May I clarify something before we leave?’ Everyone turned. Gulp.
I wanted to be able to report the general words of encouragement and praise – non identifying of course – was there any objection? There was none, indeed there were nods of agreement, and a mouthed ‘thank you’ from one advocate. Phew.
I can now well understand how challenging it is for a journalist piping up in court to clarify what they can and cannot report. For me it was challenging and I’m used to speaking in court, and knew the judge and most of the lawyers. Ironically, had it not been for journalists who have described to me how hard it is to do this, and how you just need to be bolshy and stand up and make yourself known, I think I might have bottled this. But I am glad I did. I think that in the context of another case, where feelings were more difficult and the outcome more controversial, I might have got different responses, but then in such a scenario a judgment might have been published in any event.
Without exception, everyone I encountered at court today in the course of my ‘legal blogging expedition’ was polite, friendly and helpful – notwithstanding any confusion. There was no hint of any hostility to the scheme or my presence, which I confess I had thought I might encounter. In fact, as I left court I was called back twice by various lawyers in the case to say thanks for coming, and to discuss the complexities involved in doing this work. In the course of this discussion I realised I had not clarified whether or not I could name the local authority. I’ve decided not to, just in case. I don’t think it could really be identifying, but better safe than sorry. Next time I will check.
So, although I went to court today with no expectation of reporting things said in court, I find myself – quite by chance – writing about the kind and humane remarks of a judge who is not afraid of criticising social workers, and about the positive outcome for one family who have found a way to work with social services in difficult circumstances – a scene which is perhaps more familiar to us lawyers than the public may appreciate, albeit sadly not typical of the way the majority of cases work out. I didn’t manage to see the case in front of the magistrates, as they had started that hearing whilst I was in court on the IRH, but for a first day under the pilot I’m chalking this up as a success.
The IRH / Part 14 issue will have to wait for another day – this hearing involved neither adoption nor judicially assisted conciliation as the parties had already sorted things out by agreement outside court.
I expect that at some point in some court I will encounter resistance or hostility, and it will be interesting to see whether or not I get smiling faces from the Bar in a case where the local authority is about to get a panning from the court.
So what have I learnt today about attending court under the pilot?
I’ve learnt that it requires quite a lot more thinking on my feet than I had anticipated. I think in future I will pick one hearing to attend and I will identify myself to the parties or their lawyers early on, so they have a chance to raise any queries with me. I might ask them before I go into court if there are any particular issues about possible identification (objections to identifying the LA or advocates for example) or whether I they object to me seeing any documents to help me understand the hearing better. I will also explain that at the end of the hearing I might ask the judge to clarify what I can and can’t report.
I think for the time being it is a good idea to take hard copies of rule 27 FPR, PD27B, PD36J and spare forms to court just in case there are any objections to my attendance.