Glass Half Full

So, lockdown sucks. When this all started I kept crying myself to sleep, spent the night wrestling with anxiety dreams and woke earlier than I ever have (I am a sleeper not an early bird). It felt like the end of days. I was acutely frightened for my family’s health and our financial survival. The terrible death toll has been a source of great sadness throughout this period, even though I have not been directly affected. And I have worried about the other myriad impacts on the economy and the vulnerable, which will be profound and lasting. I know that for many this time has been extremely difficult to manage, and that many have suffered grief and loss.

The beginning of lockdown seems such a long time ago now. Now what sucks is people going a bit wild with their new found freedom now we only have to ‘stay alert’. My walks, runs and supermarket shops are full of encounters with people who, to quote Patrick Swayze, seem to want to be in my ‘dance space’. Go and be alert somewhere else, guys!

The current situation around Cummings is more than depressing, and – just like at the start of lockdown – I’m torn between hibernating for a few days in the hope that it will all be sorted when I wake up, and constantly watching for the next update.

Today though, I’ve been mostly distracting myself from the particular unfolding awfulness, by keeping busy. Since you ask, I’ve done some work, been for a run, pulled down a dead tree with one hand (it was rotten), viakal-ed the kitchen taps, and supervised the tidying of 10’s bedroom (yes, basically I did it myself). During said activities, I’ve been pondering the good things in my life right now, and some of the unanticipated positives that lockdown has brought to me and to my family. I know that for other individuals and families things have been very much tougher than they have been for us.

We are lucky that everyone in our family remains healthy, though some of them have health vulnerabilities that I continue to worry about (especially since the community seems to have collectively lost the plot having taken it all so seriously to start with – the beaches and coastal paths are traffic jammed here). My parents are, reluctantly, shielding and since our own 14 days of self-isolation ended I have been their chief shopperer and designated shopper for our family.

This means that I get to be able to see them regularly, albeit at distance as I deposit the shopping in their garage. I can check in with them and make sure they are ok, I can stop and talk in the driveway about seedlings and flowers and how well they are doing with Joe Wicks. I want to give them a hug, to sit in my mum’s kitchen and be endlessly asked if I want another biscuit. But seeing them several times a week when I deliver supplies makes me feel that I am giving back a tiny bit of the care that they have given me over the years. It’s a joy not a burden and I feel good knowing they are ok.

Between visits we have been sending messages on the Marco Polo app (If you don’t know it I highly recommend it). Although my mum mainly looks bemused or bored in videos, my dad has been sending us lengthy video messages, often tours of his ever greener garden, or tales of his dad’s life as a soldier in WWII, of D-Day, tanks and battlefields, of seeing his father for the first time aged about 3, on his return from the war, frozen to the spot. The video technology has unlocked something, and dad has shared things I didn’t know before, things he had forgotten, and things he has researched online in his pre-video research. Although mum has been rather less enthusiastic, last week we received a video of mum remembering her village school 70 years ago, where the milk arrived frozen in the mornings and had to be thawed on the coal boiler that heated the classroom. In that video mum gave tantalising hints about her bad behaviour as a child and as a teenager. These videos are treasures.

Apart from the history lessons, there is regular video communications between our household, my parents and that of my brother down the road – sharing updates about the kids, our activities around home and garden, the views on our walks. If I think back my communication with all of them is far more frequent than it has been for many, many years – and we are sharing some different part of our lives than we would typically share over the table at a family Sunday lunch.

The same goes for old friends who go way back, two of whom I’ve been in daily contact with, but who live too far away for us to meet face to face very often. Seeing into one another’s houses, sending messages whilst still pyjama clad and puffy eyed, sending a quick message whilst doing the chores or between work meetings, sharing minor triumphs and frustrations, laughing about long forgotten shared memories… has been a blessing.

In the initial weeks of lockdown there was limited work available, which was worrying, but which gave plenty of time to get other things sorted out. I decorated my office (thank goodness, it has seen a lot of use since), and in recent weeks have really quite flat out with work. But, whilst I’ve worked pretty damned hard, I’ve managed to squeeze in the runs that I rarely managed when commuting in the week, I don’t have to waste time travelling, and I have, by and large, kept my weekends to do other stuff. Now that the acute stress and worry of having no income has subsided, it’s clear that my work life balance is much better and I am the better for it (money is still a worry as much of the available work is poorly paid and the final hearings that we depend on are dropping like flies, so things are still unpredictable). I’ve also found that I have been far more productive in the nest I have created in my office than I ever was when working in chambers, or elsewhere at home (I am lucky enough to have been able to focus on my job as bread winner whilst my other half acts as the main teacher – I would have lost the plot completely if I’d had to try and do both of these jobs simultaneously). I can focus, I can get on with things, and in fact I can also take a break and do something else that needs doing in between. I have loved being able to do a hearing and then pop out for a walk in the sun or to get some milk before the advocates’ meeting later that day – of course that doesn’t happen every day, but that it happens at all is a blessing.

Our family has fallen into something of a routine, albeit a slightly fluid one. Mornings are for school and court, afternoons for goofing off (for them if not for me), and at some point most days either I will run with the dog or we will all go on a walk with her instead. And then we all stay up too late (case in point – its nearly 1am!), and joke about who is the biggest sleepyhead the next morning. The amount of formal schooling the kids are doing is relatively limited, but they are each working on projects of their choice that interest them alongside their set work.

During lockdown I’ve cooked more and eaten better than when on the move with work. We are sharing the cooking, which means a more varied diet and less ‘sod it we’ll just have fishfingers / pasta’ days.  Some days I have time to put the dinner in the slowcooker at lunchtime and its ready when I finish. On days when I finish work exhausted (there have been a few) I don’t have to pack up, catch a train or drive home struggling to stay awake at the wheel or rammed in standing room only. I don’t arrive home after everyone has eaten to reheated my plated up dinner and eat it alone. Now I just shut my laptop, close the door and I’m home in time for dinner.

We’ve done stuff with the kids – bike rides, tie dyeing, dog walking, baking, running, gardening, decorating. Today I helped 12 with his drama homework – we had fits of giggles at our attempts to learn how to speak and read a poem in a Yorkshire accent, and make a recording of it for the teacher (I can now speak pretty passable yorkshire!). Don’t get me wrong, all this wholesome parenting has been interspersed with long, long periods of screen time (minecraft, youtube, coding etc etc), and much of it has been a struggle to get them to join in with – though more often than not they enjoy themselves once they get going. This weekend 12 and I picked elderflowers on our walk and made elderflower champagne.

Also, if I’m honest, I’ve spent more time in the same room as my other half during this period than I would have in a whole year. Whilst there have been some moments of mutual irritation, it’s been a relief how well we’ve rubbed along.

What else? I’ve cleaned things I haven’t cleaned for *cough* quite a while… (I confess though that other than bursts of spring cleaning enthusiasm the general standards are pretty low – please do not run a finger over my mantelpiece). I’ve done a bit of knitting, and I’ve taught myself some basic crochet – something that I’ve just not had the headspace to do until now. In a moment of lunacy I bought a sewing machine, and yesterday I made bunting as a gift. My sewing skills are limited, as are my crochet skills, but it’s lovely to spend some time on doing something with my hands.

I’ve been able to spend time on the garden, which is now looking better than it has done for years, and we are tantalisingly close to finally taming that bit at the bottom that has had a decade of neglect. And I can look out of my bedroom window in the morning to see my other half happily pottering in the greenhouse, doing his morning check on his seedlings, sometimes with 12 who is helping him test out novel ways of growing tomatoes – up strings and in tanks using hydroponics! It makes me happy to watch them pottering in the garden, contentedly tending to things they have grown.

I’m beginning to realise that whilst there is a lot I miss about my old life, and a lot about lockdown I hate, there is a lot about life at the moment that I will be sad to lose. I hope that I can hold on to how much better life feels when you get outside, when you stop to look around, when you have time for yourself and your family, and when you just slow down.

I hope I hold on to that, because although I’ve done all sorts of things with my lockdown I still have a huge long list of other things I want to do. There are still books to read, decorating to do, crochet and gardening projects and spring cleaning tasks to sort out, a book to write, blog posts to type… I realise now that I could have a year off work and never do everything I want to be busying myself with. And that makes me realise how small a portion of my potential life I was living before lockdown released all of that. What’s more, I quite like the sense of comparative internal calm where there used to be a knot of only barely manageable stress that I thought was inevitable and incurable. Turns out maybe it wasn’t at all.

The chances are I will slip back, as the need to earn enough money to pay the mortgage month on month looms larger. But I hope I will do a little better than my pre-lockdown self managed on the wellbeing front, and that I will have more to give back to friends, family and colleagues as a result.

I’ve got a little job for you…

This is your homework task. It is due in by SUNDAY.

Over at The Transparency Project the team have been crazy busy what with finishing a mammoth response to the President’s Transparency Review (if there is a prize for the longest I think we’ve won it), and with a whole host of recent posts about appellate and High Court authority about remote hearings (when to do them, how to do them, how not to do them), and various posts about the incidental transparency deficits that Covid-19 is creating. See two posts today about two very different types of transparency gap :

Journalists persuade Judge to change his mind and name criticised local authority


Transparency and risk assessments : A Covid-Catch 22

SO. What do you need to do?

The Transparency Project could do with a wee cash injection (don’t worry I’m not asking you for money though we won’t stop you if you wish to thrust some upon us for our ‘good works’). BUT, there is one way you can help us to raise a bit of cash to keep on ticking over. We don’t need a lot of funds to keep going since we are largely volunteer run, but we do need some funds and to keep replenishing them.

By clicking on the link below you can nominate us to win £1,000. You’ll need to put in our charity registration number (that’s 1161471) and select education as the sector. It’s a lottery, so the more nominations (tickets) we get the better our chances.

Please act now – the deadline is SUNDAY this week!!

Here is the link to the movement for good, nominate a charity page.


Normal blogging service will resume at some point – I am currently too obsessed with gardening and crochet to spend my spare time blogging… perhaps I will convert this to a hobby blog!!

Necessity Not Evangelism

I saw a tweet yesterday from Judge Itis (@itisjudge) complaining that Professor Susskind was ‘pontificating’ in the Financial Times about remote hearings.

It piqued my interest so much that I went and subscribed to the FT again (didn’t it used to be free?) to see if he was just griping unfairly or if he had a point.

When i googled ‘susskind financial times’ i was taken straight to the article. The headline seemed reductive. But, knowing that Susskind won’t have written the headline, which will have been a headline writer’s distillation of the article, I wondered if the article presented as simplistic a view as the headline writer had thought it did.

That headline was :

Covid-19 shutdown shows virtual courts work better

Legal access improves and justices have not harrumphed at the change
[Update : forgot to include the link to the piece. Here it is [£].]
Anyone who thinks that the way courts have worked in recent weeks can be characterised by the single blanket descriptor of ‘better’ has not been paying attention. Astonishingly, Susskind does actually seem to hold that view.
I don’t suggest, by the way, that things have been universally ‘worse’ either – some aspects have worked surprisingly well. But many things have been slower, more difficult, less fair, less effective – and less humane. And they also aren’t sustainable – as Judge Itis has been pointing out for some time in his tweets on the impact on judicial health and wellbeing. Whilst things are being refined and improved, what we are all discovering (judges, lawyers and clients) is that remote hearings, whether video or phone, and regardless of platform, are just more tiring on the brain and eyes and you can’t work so fast or for so long. An inconvenient fact.
The article starts by a description of the successful adaptation of the US Supreme Court. Although I am not an expert on the US Supreme Court I am going to go out on a limb and suggest it is better set up and resourced than Bloggshire County Court and that there may not be a useful comparison. I acknowledge though that Susskind’s point is one of potential and his vision is one of wholesale reform and investment to achieve that. But I think we all know that investment is not coming. Let’s face it, Bloggshire County Court does not even have running water (except that which is pouring through a hole in the roof and into a bucket in counsel’s row) – and that was before the lockdown trashed our economy.
This is the first paragraph though, that really struck me :
This rapid uptake of remote courts prompts several fundamental questions. Is court a service or a place? Do people really need to gather together in buildings to settle legal disputes? Until a few weeks ago, most judges and lawyers rejected the idea of non-physical courts, denying that remote hearings could be fair or even technically feasible. I used to think that high cultural barriers meant it would take a decade for courts to embrace technology fully. Then the virus came, courts closed, and it only took a fortnight.
Susskind elides practical changes borne of necessity with a change in view regarding fundamental questions. We haven’t ‘fully embraced’ fundamental changes to our system of justice. We’ve had to make it work as best we can because we had to do SOMETHING. We are still working it out. We are finding some aspects are more do-able than we thought, but that many are harder than could have been predicted – in spite of huge amounts of investment of time and energy by individuals across the system. We are all very aware that the consequences of these changes are utterly unknown – so the sensible amongst us are not drawing any firm conclusions just yet. We are all learning and adjusting our views as we go.
Susskind says though that,
Anecdotal evidence indicates that most remote hearings have gone well over the past month. Last week, in England and Wales, more than 80 per cent of the country’s court and tribunal caseload was handled remotely, without reported mishap.  
He is not reading the same anecdotal evidence as I am. And, anecdotally, my experiences are not a match to this. What about the Family Justice Observatory Rapid Consultation report which shows a distinctly mixed picture, including some good practice and some very worrying features? What about the blog posts on The Transparency Project blog, giving granular and informative account of the actual experiences of those involved? Not all disastrous for sure, and we can certainly see that we may have been overly cautious about remote hearings before the outbreak – but ‘without reported mishap’? Quite apart from the glib choice of the word ‘mishap’, is he serious? He needs to attend some Family Court hearings. Is it a ‘mishap’ if a parent is too distraught or confused to be able to follow what is happening in an emergency hearing which results in their baby being taken away? More apt than ‘mishap’, would be the word ‘injustice’.
Part of the context, by the way, to the historically quite widespread resistance to the various schemes to introduce remote hearings, is the equally widespread perception that there is an agenda that is overtly or covertly push push pushing remote justice as the way of the future, and that this agenda is driven by economic incentives to cut costs and make efficiencies at the expense of those actually working in or experiencing the system. To push reform even where it may not serve the interests of fairness rather than efficient process. Whether that perception is right or wrong, when the technology adviser to the LCJ writes this sort of rose tinted PR piece it feeds into those understandable anxieties. From someone on the ground, it feels as if Susskind is describing some sort of alternate reality.
In fairness to Susskind he does say that there is a need for further evaluation :
Overnight converts now suggest we should never return to the old ways. Yet this massive and unscheduled pilot scheme has produced some rather haphazard innovations. So systematic analysis of the experience is needed first. Before any court buildings are closed for good, we must be confident that justice can continue to be delivered online, reliably and transparently.
I don’t know about you, but the framing of that reads to me as if in Susskind’s mind it’s a questions of WHEN courts close and WHEN we move online for good rather than IF?
For me the question is both the extent to which we CAN really sustainably, fairly, and efficiently use remote justice as part of our ‘Smorgasbord’ of ways of delivering justice (to borrow a contemporary phrase) – and whether we SHOULD have as our overarching objective a move away from buildings and people and human interactions as the backbone of what we call justice.
On that last question I do have a pretty firm view – we will ALWAYS need courts, even if we can now see that we could sensibly begin to hold more of some sorts of hearings remotely in future. In coming months we need to keep very closely in mind the human side of what justice really means. We need to think of justice as something that has profound power to change lives, not just a process or a machine.
And what we need as an absolute priority is proper research and evaluation (based on proper data), proper consultation with ALL stakeholders and a system that listens to what those stakeholders are saying. We have undoubtedly been shown that more was possible than we thought, and we have been shown that I.T. has more potential than we had realised, but we’ve also been shown the huge complexity and scale of moving forwards – but the fact that those leading the push are apparently only hearing what a great unmitigated success it has been so far, does not suggest that they are really listening at all.