A plea for thoughtfulness…

Two pleas for thoughtfulness actually.

Annie of Surviving Safeguarding spoke at the ALC Conference this week. She was like a female, geordie version of John Bishop, only with much darker material. And more swearing. She had a fan queue at the end. There was one thing I wanted to draw out from what she said (there was so much to take from it, but this one thing happened to resonate with my own recent experience) – it was her plea for professionals to think about how their chummy chats and giggles in corners look and feel to the client who is at court, bewildered and fearful of their children being taken – to the client whose only ally is gassing with the enemy”. We all do it. I do it sometimes, although I try to be very mindful of my client’s needs and perceptions. And, as Annie recognised, it is a natural and necessary part of our job – we have to communicate and we have to have functional working relationships with colleagues in order to do our job and achieve results for our clients – and black humour is something we need to get by in a stressful and depressing working environment. An opponent who trusts you is more likely to see your request as reasonable and respond to it, than an opponent who has experienced you as a miserable old cow day in day out*.

But the point is it has a really big impact on how a parent feels and on how they experience what is going on, what is being done to their family.

A client recently raised this very issue with me, having noted the guardian and her lawyer repeatedly spending time in the same conference room as the social worker and her lawyer. He was right to pick up on it, as all of us acknowledged. We were able to talk it through collectively with him and to reassure him. This was possible because the guardian in question was a fiercely independent guardian who is quite happy to give the local authority “what for” and who, I reminded the client, had done just that earlier on in the case, pooh poohing their ridiculous care plan. But actually, it is better not to provoke that anxiety about what’s going on because not all clients are able to articulate that anxiety or to respond to reassurance about it. And in some cases there IS too much cosiness between one team and another and it IS unhealthy. And from the outside both scenarios look and feel exactly the same.

As lawyers we do need to go and hole up with other lawyers to discuss and negotiate and draft, coming back to base to take instructions and inform our clients. But an explanation of what is happening and why, and regular check-ins with clients go a long way. Likewise, going into court on a “counsel only basis” is something I rarely do these days – and where I do I explicitly explain to the client why (usually : just to ask for time, because the judge has specifically requested it) and I often ask the judge to stop if I feel issues are being discussed that my client will want or need to be involved in.

So that is my first plea for thoughtfulness. To all lawyers involved in care proceedings. To social workers and to guardians. Please help parents to trust in the system and in your independence and professionalism. Don’t overdo the chummy thing or the private chat thing.

Second plea for thoughtfulness?

The Transparency Project published the results of a study on adoption targets this week. You can read about that on The Transparency Project blog or on Community Care. It’s tricky stuff. We don’t have all the answers. The study doesn’t lay to rest all those theories about babies being taken to meet targets or secure bonuses – but nor is it proof that those theories are right. It’s complicated innit? Some of the reactions to the study have been (predictably) to say that the study is “proof” of the distorting effect of adoption targets. It isn’t. This study REALLY requires reading beyond the headline. It IS proof that it’s a complicated topic and that more work is needed – and that’s all really. Thoughtful responses to the issues raised by the study are encouraged. How do we get more clarity? How do we reassure parents? How do we make sure that we aren’t inadvertently creating the system that the critics complain of, one that has systemic distortions in it?

 

*yes, I know I’m a miserable old cow much of the time. Moo to you…

7 thoughts on “A plea for thoughtfulness…

  1. Just a short note about a serious pet hate of mine and thats what happens when hearings have finished.

    There must be a better way than for Solicitors to be wafting “pay sheets” at Judges for the Judges to sign at the conclusion of a hearing, the impression it paints towards a parent is quite something.

    A parent could have lost everything and the last thing they should be borne too is their Lawyer focused on time sheets, I don’t see it much with L.A’s Lawyers, the practice seems to be from parents Lawyers, surely email the pape/ sheets that would be more sympathetic.

    Just the smallest of changes like Annie suggested would go along way to make situations for parents to deal with more understandable.

    • Hi Jerry,
      You are talking about FAS forms which advocates paid by legal aid have to complete. You make a good point, and wherever possible I try and complete mine a bit early and send them in to the judge to be signed unobtrusively so I can give my full attention to my client when the decision is handed down. But that isn’t always possible due to the pressures of a trial and the judge dealing with other matters – and for some hearings they can’t be completed until the end of the hearing as you need the end time filled in and specifically endorsed by the judge (and often when you send them in to the judge they forget to initial or stamp something which means you have to resubmit them because if every single thing is not ticked and sealed separately your claim gets rejected and you don’t get paid – this is I think why advocates generally don’t send them in because they often have to go back and get their form corrected at the end anyway). Unfortunately these forms are really essential so we can’t skip them – if we don’t have the form we can’t get paid at all (god forbid that they should trust when we say we were at court for x number of hours, so we have to go through the humiliation of having the judge confirm we are telling the truth) – and some courts / judges are very strict and refuse to complete them if you don’t fill them in on the day. It can’t be emailed because it requires a stamp and signature and on the odd occasion when they have to be sent in by post they get lost – and of course the judge then can’t remember what time the hearing finished, how big the bundle was, how long the lunch break was etc, all of which are things she has to verify. Sadly, we are forced into this situation by the legal aid scheme.

      The reason by the way that you don’t see local authority lawyers doing this is because they are paid by the local authority and not the legal aid agency so they don’t have to get a form signed by the judge.

  2. Hear, hear! Perhaps we could expand this ethical dimension to include judges? If lawyers exchanging jokes were not bad enough, counsel for the opposing side discussing their last round of golf with the judge is perhaps something for a practice direction!

    On other matters, I haven’t forgotten my promise to report back on NMO legal aid fraud, it’s just that with an MoJ investigation ongoing, now wouldn’t be an appropriate time.

    Lastly, to get my ha’penny’s worth: Kids for cash UK has now documented serial records management failures in local authorities, constabularies, CPS and the courts relating to child abuse. As an ex-local authority CIO who provided input on behalf of a global software supplier to UK government on the records management and process failures relating to the Victoria Climbié case, the Soham murders and the Home Office prisoner releases, this is one of my professional competencies. The failures are exacerbated by management and elected officials ongoing failures to implement scrutiny and governance over records management despite having been warned of the failures and despite all concerned having received communications from the IICSA reminding them of the necessity to secure records (incl. evidence).

  3. I agree that it look terrible to the client
    It doesn’t feel great for the barrister either
    To improve the situation a bit all round I think Judges should deal with forms in chambers; not on the bench

  4. Well said, Lucy. It is extremely distressing for an anxious parent to be left in the dark and to have to witness cosy ‘huddles’ where the only part of the conversation that can be heard is laughter. Maybe it’s worth mentioning that someone with severe anxiety can give the impression of being uncooperative or defensive when, in fact, they are struck by fear.

    Your article suggests a very small change that will make an enormous difference to any parent finding themselves in the case system and that can only be a good thing. ????

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