What have you done to my red book, dudes?

Since I started life at the bar a copy of the Red Book (Family Court Practice) has been my comfort blanket. Initially an old beaten copy of last year's edition given to me by someone in chambers who knew how tough it was to find the money to buy one when starting out (it was still expensive  then, around £400 I think). Later my very own...One year I had two when, having bought one, Jordans sent me a review copy meaning I could have one for home and one for chambers. And more recently, after years of the paper getting thinner and thinner and the book still getting heavier and heavier (particularly in the Munby years!) - I took the plunge and moved to the pdf version.

I found over time that on a holistic welfare analysis of the pros and cons of the red book, that the frequency with which I needed to refer to the red book had diminished to the point where it was just a massive pain in the backside (figuratively) and shoulder (literally) to lug around a book that I almost never looked at. It was still worth paying an exorbitant amount for a book I rarely used, because it was valuable when I did need it, but it wasn't worth carrying around in hard copy all year just because the paper version was marginally easier to navigate. So, paperless it was.

I was still largely working on paper at that time, and hated the pdf version at first, but persevered and managed to get the hang of its basic navigation. It wasn't the best even right up to last year, but then I have become used to working with a text book that, even in hard copy, always had an index that NEVER included the keyword I wanted to search for. As my pdf skills improved, most notably as I began to go paperless entirely last year, I reached a point where I could usually find the page I wanted faster than anybody else, using page numbers, key word searches and occasionally the irritating index - and I could extract the relevant few pages with a couple of taps on my ipad and ping them to judge or opponents. Making me the biggest keener in the room. Plus my shoulders didn't hurt any more from carrying the damned thing around on my back or in a suitcase.

So, I ordered it again this year....

It arrived about a month ago - later than usual because, I think, it was issued simultaneously with the hard copy, and the hard copy was held up by some mysterious print error which now seems to have been the faliure by someone to have included the index! Thus, those who are still on paper now have a huge red book to carry, AND the annoyance of having to also lug around a separate index, and to try not to lose or forget it.

But this year sadly the advantages of going paperless have evaporated. Without warning the publishers have moved the digital version across to epub format which means you can't just open the red book in a tab on your pdf reader. You have to open it in an entirely separate app (on my machine apple books) and if in court switch between one app and another to go between your red book and your bundle.

So, within an hour or so of download I'd given up on it, having established that :

  • the file was prone to hanging up my app on either the laptop or ipad, and only intermittently showed in the apple books library on both
  • the navigation was completely impossible to operate because the ToC was clickable but not easily scrollable, could not be furled and unfurled, the links didn't work reliably and the search function / page navigation / back functions don't operate at all the same as in my pdf reader (if they work at all). After multiple attempts I could not work out how to navigate back to page one, back to the index, or back to where I'd been a moment ago before accidentally clicking on something in the ToC whilst trying to scroll down to locate what I actually needed. It's not clear to me how much of this is specific to the way the navigation on the specific file is set up and how much of it is to do with the software it is required to run on, but either way its massively annoying.
  • there was no way of extracting a section of text to print or email to an opponent or judge
  • everyone else who had tried it was similarly disgruntled as far as I could tell from social media

I mulled it over for a week or so, tried it again a couple of times, but ultimately decided this was not something I wanted to pay 500 quid for. I'd also remembered in the meantime that our chambers subscription to lexis provides an online version of the red book, which, although a little cumbersome, is actually possible to navigate, download sections, and email to self etc. Now that wifi is (touch wood) pretty reliable in almost all the courts I visit, this seemed to me to strike a far better balance as between cost, benefit and irritation levels.

So I cancelled. Or at any rate I tried to. But I was persuaded, as it seems were a number of others, to wait for a pdf version of the book that they were apparently working on in response to negative feedback (seriously, the feedback must have been atrocious for them to do this!). It would be ready in a couple of weeks and the cancellation period would be extended. I was sceptical now I'd settled on falling back on the lexis subscription, but thought I'd wait and see.

Over the weekend I was sent another download. It is another epub document. It has all the same issues, and I can't see any difference. It ISN'T a pdf. I tried to use it to answer an actual live question a colleague had coincidentally asked me to test it out again. It took me almost ten minutes to work out how to get to information about change of name and the notes to s13 Children Act 1989, by which point the answer had already been found. In it's current form it is no use to me at all.

There is now a suggestion that in fact this was an error and the pdf version will not be coming until September. In the meantime the product I have is unusable and the lifespan of this £500 product will be reduced to 9 months (assuming that the publishers are back on schedule to publish in May 2020 as usual. There is (so far) no suggestion that the price will be discounted for those who don't cancel.

I will wait and see what comes but the longer I go on the harder it is to see how I could justify this sort of expenditure. I've written this post not just to have a pop at Lexis, but for two reasons :

  • firstly, I would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences or if I am being a bit of a failure in getting to grips with apple books. Maybe there are some easy work arounds that I've not found, although I'm not hugely inclined to spend much time up-skilling myself. Maybe there is some other piece of software available on both laptop and ipad that will transform the experience. If you do have useful practical tips to share please add a comment.
  • secondly, I suspect that there are lots of people who have been sent downloads which they've not really looked at as its the summer - they may be on holiday - and they may not have grappled with the 14 day cancellation period, may not appreciate the wider issues, and may not be aware that there is the prospect of a pdf version emerging in the autumn. As far as I am aware lexis have not sent any proactive general email to purchasers of the epub version letting them know what is going on - they have responded to those who have kicked up.

I think on both points the sharing of knowledge will hopefully reduce the amount of stress and duplication of time that we all spend sorting this out. We're all still on a learning curve on paperless working - even those who were early adopters. I've found twitter and social media really useful for cutting through barriers to doing this or that, as often someone can say 'oh that's easy, to solve x problem you just do y' - a solution that you would never find through trial and error or via google or a helpline. So, your thoughts, experiences and tips please.

I do close though by noting that I find it frustrating that the new epub version of the book was launched with a great flourish as new and improved without (as far as I can tell) any decent market research. It would have taken no effort at all to really find out about the users of this book to know that we are moving in droves into digital format, but we are working with multiple files in pdf formats and that the book was therefore already in the right format for the users of it (albeit that the navigation was less than brilliant). Big pdfs are cumbersome even when the navigation is set up properly, but there was plenty of scope to invest energy into improving the navigation and utility of the pdf book without switching formats. I'm afraid I think that Lexis have squandered a lot of the goodwill that Jordans built up over many years as the main family law publisher, by treating loyal customers in this way - I don't know but suspect that the rationale was probably something to do with moving to a format that better protects copyright, but whatever it was this will have hit revenues at Lexis (although of course even the revenues from the red book are a mere drop in the ocean for the big beast that is Lexis). It is such a shame because the actual content of the red book is second to none - and when you do need it it is invaluable. But, whilst I will make my final decision when I see they promised pdf version, it is very probably the case that this episode has nudged me into a realisation that I probably don't need to pay this much money for this product any more.

Pass the bundle…

So, a few months ago there was a flurry of notices about the collection of bundles at the end of court hearings, with stern warnings about who would be reported to the ICO for GDPR breaches if the right person didn't take responsibility for the right bundle at the right time. Notices went up on court doors from HMCTS charmingly threatening to report advocates to the ICO for not taking away bundles. At the time I queried it via twitter (official designated route for all complaints these days) but then some other (I thought at the time, equally impenetrable) clariificatory guidance was issued and well, frankly, I was busy and life moved on.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who decided life was too short.

However. Data protection IS important, and still about every other trial I conclude involves the same ill informed half hearted discussion between advocates and judge about what the latest guidance actually says, whether it is right and ultimately everyone decides to use common sense and take home their own bundles but not anybody else's.

I've been working up to writing a - mercifully short - blog post to clarify the clarification for some time, and have only been slowed down only by the existence of a lot of naked woodwork in my house. Which has needed to be painted. And which I have chosen to watch dry in preference to writing this scintillating piece of prose...

But right now, after a wild frenzy of gloss painting, this seems like a welcome break. Such is the razzamatazz of life as an almost almost 45 year old....

Right. Let's get to it. It's actually pretty simples (I think - don't take this as legal advice etc etc).

You need to read the Bar Council guidance issued in April here. Or, if you are the reckless sort, or just have a lot of wet paintwork to supervise urgently, you may read my precis of it here :

  • Look after and take home your own bundles. Your responsibility.
  • Don't take responsibility for the court's bundles (wtiness / judge bundles) unless you have specifically been authorised by the solicitor who produced them, Not your responsibility. But would become your uninsured risk...
  • If you've agreed to bring judge / witness bundles on the day of a hearing you may be stuck with carting em back. I suggest you don't agree to deliver bundles thus avoiding this issue (personally I think this is conduct of litigation but I know this is not a universally held view, but also it's a DP risk. And just generally NOT. YOUR. JOB. Even if there is some guidance somewhere saying it is...). Those of you who have mercifully gone paperless and require only a backpack containing an embarrassing number of apple devices will be able entirely legitimately to claim that you cannot deliver the bundle anyway *sorry face* because you have no room in your bag. Those of you who are almost almost 45** or *gasp* even more ancient, will be able to appreciate the benefits of NOT carting around other people's bundles. Your shoulders / back / knees will thank you...

So. It's simples really. When someone tries to foist their oh so heavy bundle upon you just say no thanks. I'm paper free! And leave that courtroom light as a feather!

And yes, it's slightly different I'm sure for those who are responsible for the conduct of the litigation and who have produced the wretched bundles. But I can only cram so much excitement into one blog post. Someone else can write about the position for solicitors....

** can you tell I have an impending birthday of doom...?

 

The sanctity of the advocates room

A twitter thread was kicked off by Jack Harrison yesterday, complaining about the encroachment into advocates rooms of guardians and social workers....

https://twitter.com/JackHarrison/status/1148523237518786566

My initial reaction was 'Hell yes! What Jack said!' until a moment later I realised I was privy to one such naughty huddle in Bristol only very recently...

in fact, it's not a new phenomenon, until the cafe franchise lapsed and the advocates dining room at Swindon Combined Court was converted into a court room, that was ALWAYS used for care conferences for years, notwithstanding the sign on the door reminding advocates that wasn't what it was for (the advocates room itself was never used for this). The problem is that there is often nowhere suitable to hold these highly confidential and often protracted but essential meetings. They are part of how care proceedings work and in care proceedings there are invariably four (or more) lawyers. In Swindon no confidentiality issues arose from the possibility of other lawyers earwigging, because once the dining room had four or five lawyers, a guardian and a social worker in them there was no room for anyone else to fit in.

Whilst I've clearly colluded in this heinous boundary transgression only recently, I should make clear that where there IS room for discussions outside or where there is a busy advocates room being used by other lawyers I certainly wouldn't invite a social worker or guardian into the advocates room and would probably object to them being allowed in too (or probably if it wasn't my case I would frown disapprovingly over the top of my sandwich to give a hint). (Also I didn't start it, Miss!)

My recent Bristol scenario arose where we were involved in protracted discussions over several days which legitimately required (at times) the involvement of the social worker and guardian. At one point we used the cafcass room, but at some point we ended up in the advocates room -  I think because we'd agreed to meet there after grabbing a sandwich, which most of us had brought back to eat in the advocates room anyway. I didn't really clock it as an issue at the time since there was really nobody else around and plenty of space for other lawyers who needed a quiet spot (we are blessed with a massive and pleasant advocates room at Bristol). Our discussions took place at quiet times when others were in court. But that did evolve somehow into an assumption that the guardian and social worker would then come in on other days and eat their lunch in the advocates room (not just for the meeting), which in hindsight was probably not on (I should say that even though my case was opposed to theirs, both guardian and social worker are perfectly pleasant and unobjectionable individuals, but I do recall thinking 'Oh right, this is happening every day now...'. There is a real tension here because the assertion by lawyers that they are somehow superior to other professionals involved in a case is a somewhat unattractive tendency. Sometimes that is a product of lawyers being pompous entitled gits, and sometimes it's just that other professionals treat all lawyers as having a superiority complex. But the fact is that whilst social workers and guardians are frequent visitors to court buildings, for lawyers the court is a home from home - our main place of work. So requests for a space we can 'call our own' is legitimate I think.

I should know really that advocates rooms are a touchy subject. Not least because I upset at least one lawyer when I popped into the Leeds advocates room one day in December last year to deposit my overnight bag whilst doing a spot of legal blogging. The idea that I had set foot in the advocates room and might have overheard private discussions when not there as a lawyer really got some people's backs up. The fact is that it had been empty and that I had taken a stroll to the advocates room to avoid overhearing the confidential case discussion that that been ongoing in the public waiting area is an irony not lost on me. These issues arise because there is often inadequate private space for conferences and meetings, and because lawyers are forced into conducting their discussions in quite inappropriate places - on the confidentiality front it is probably less awful to hold a discussion in the advocates room where other passing advocates might overhear, than in a public area where the public might do so, but of course neither is acceptable.

And in times of high work stress for all of us, even the grottiest, tiniest, stuffiest of advocates rooms is a sanctuary from the pressures of clients and judges, and a space to let off steam. As one lawyer suggests we should :

Explain that it’s not about snobbery/ranking. There are legitimate reasons that non-advocates should not be in there which include advocates leaving valuables/confidential files in the room & having a space to unwind/work out of the public eye or within hearing.

Jack suggests that there are 'sensitivities' that mean some are reluctant to upset the influential guardians who hold the key to instructions. I'd hope that is not really a factor, but I can certainly think of at least one advocates room in a small satellite court where guardians do often eat their lunch. But that is not a combined court and is therefore mostly family advocates all of whom work on the same cases day in and day out. And I guess if I'm honest I'd find it harder when a visiting lawyer to a 'foreign' court to object to an established practice that all the local lawyers seem content with. Indeed, reflecting on it now, it's never crossed my mind to do so - that's just 'the way they do it down there'. Though objectively they probably would be wise not to (and the alternative rooms in that court are in fairness particularly unattractive places to eat lunch).

Anyway, I'm grateful for Jack reminding us all that it is actually quite important to maintain those boundaries even if I don't know how it is always possible to square all the circles.

There is a section of the thread started by Jack where a couple of advocates complain about the involvement of guardians and social workers in advocates meetings at all - I am often the pedant reminding the lawyers who have assumed their social worker can join our advocates meeting that actually that isn't an advocates' meeting and that it should be all parties or none. That usually goes down like a cup of cold sick and everyone looks affronted and takes it as a personal criticism of the social worker or guardian in question. It isn't, of course. It's just basics - but in some areas (mine included) the participation of social workers and guardians is far more routine than it should be.

Personally, I don't have an issue with guardians and social workers being involved in advocates discussions at court where all lawyers have agreed and there is a purpose to doing so - it can for example often cut through things and avoid a lot of toing and froing to take instructions. But that has to be case specific and I will often say no when it is suggested, depending on where the interests of my client may lie.

It's so important to ensure that the client does not perceive that they have been unfairly cut out of the loop where other parties are not, or that things are not perceived to be too cosy. The reality is of course that often the professionals do all know each other and have more or less regular encounters. But our friendly professionalism can easily be misconstrued as chumminess and partiality (and occasionally that perception is justified). The key to it all is to be alert to how the client may feel or perceive things and to keep them informed about what you are doing and why at regular intervals. A good advocate will take their client 'with them' even though the client is not physically in the room.