I've been getting blank faces whenever I've asked colleagues what they think of the latest 'President's View' (the first from this reincarnation of the President, Lord Justice Macfarlane). Turns out that was because nobody has had time to read Family Law journal and it hadn't made it's way into the wider world. Eventually I emailed the President's office to see if the publication of the View only behind a paywall was intentional. 24 hours later its all over the place, so I guess it wasn't (if you want to read it in full it is here).
I've re-read it now, and see there is more in it than the middle chunk entitled 'Well-being: dealing with the current pressure', which had me tossing the journal across the desk in despair the first time around. But that middle chunk is still bothering me. I'll precis it for those who CBA to read it or who have worked out for themselves that they will have to cut out non-essentials like keeping up to speed in order to keep heads above water :
- the President is concerned for the wellbeing of all of us
- he cant do anything about workloads
- it isn't business as usual - it's ok to cut some corners (which ones? does that apply to us?) and exceed time limits (when?) otherwise we risk burn out (please could someone tell this to the judges?)
- the President is 'encouraging local dialogue' between us and our respective DFJs so that parameters may be agreed as to what is sensible and acceptable working practices - he gives examples of what might be discussed and agreed :
- the earliest and latest time of day when the court can reasonably be expected to sit
- the latest time in the evening / earliest time in the morning when it is acceptable to send an email to another lawyer in a case or to the court
- reducing a position statement to one side of A4 bullet points on the basis that fuller oral submissions may be made at court
- relaxation of the requirements to lodge preliminary docs by 11.00am the day before a hearing.
- However, the President says it is a given we will continue to 'go the extra mile' when needed (but it's ALWAYS NEEDED!)
- The President is giving us psychological 'permission' to talk about these things together and with local judges.
I'm pausing to push my despair back down to its safe hiding place as I type. I like the President very much but this is impossible. We have duties to clients - I can't do a half arsed position statement and hope that the judge who is at breaking point and doesn't have time in his list will let me waffle on to make it right the next day. I can't not respond to an email late at night if the hearing is tomorrow and there is a risk I might get bawled out for not being ready when I rock up at court. I can't know what local practice has resulted from 'local dialogue' in a neighbouring court, and how not lodging a preliminary document by 11.00am will go down (in some courts I've appeared in, filing a document at 11.01 unequivocally results in a refusal even to acknowledge the existence of the document, even if one was briefed at 10.59 and the document is genuinely important).
We don't need psychological permission to go and have a nice cosy chat with our DFJ in the way that children need permission from one parent to go to the other. We need leaders to say we don't have to do this, we must not do this.
Not only will 'local dialogue' result in a complete postcode lottery depending on how cuddly the DFJ in a particular area is (and I can tell you some are decidedly more cuddly than others), it will result in confusion where advocates are briefed across DFJ borders (this already happens but it will get worse). For example, some judges consider it the norm (so I understand) to sit up to and even after 6pm and advocates are simply expected to have childcare in place. And some judges demand full written openings and detailed agreed advocate's chronologies for every care final hearing (a rarity where we are). And more importantly, in some DFJ areas (not mine, for what its worth) it would be utterly impossible for a productive dialogue to take place because the environment is such that professionals are in a state of perpetual anxiety waiting for the next b*locking. There have already been some localised flare ups in a couple of areas in response to unhelpful missives and local guidance about the prompt e-filing of orders and compliance courts which do not make for a great starting point for dialogue. It is really hard even with a cuddly DFJ to broach these issues. It is impossible in courts where the judiciary are overly fond of enforcement, shouting and threats of wasted costs.
This is all interconnected with the rising awareness of judicial bullying. Firstly let me reiterate that most judges are not bullies. And occasionally a judge who bullies does so just because that is how they are. I happen to think though that most of the judicial bullying that takes place is unintentional and where a judge's 'robust case management' tips into inappropriate and bullying behaviour, in part because of the pressures the judges themselves are under, and their loss of perspective as to what the pressures are for the bar and solicitors (and social workers). The pressures are far more intense than when most judges were in practice and I don't think they are comparing like for like when thinking back to what we have to contend with and trying to set realistic tasks and deadlines. The fact of the matter is, whatever the President says about how it cannot be right that we go the extra mile as a matter of routine, advocates in some areas ARE expected to go the extra mile ALL THE TIME. And roundly criticised when they can't keep it up.
Andrew Macfarlane is eminently approachable, and this is obviously a genuine attempt to help, but not all judges are approachable. And, as I was reminded by someone who had listened to the Word of Mouth radio programme I took part in recently, the law is astonishingly hierarchical. Challenging a judge in an individual case because it is your job to be a fearless advocate, or irritating the judge in the individual case because your client's instructions are frankly batty, is one thing - but asking a judge known to be fierce and rigid about time limits and procedure to 'cut corners' so you can get a bit more sleep is quite another, even if prefaced with 'the big P has told me to ask you'. In fact, starting such a dialogue with any judge is really difficult for the advocates that appear before him or her. I am anxious about publishing this blog post even though I have been very careful to talk in general terms and not identify any particular judge or area. I speak based on my own direct knowledge of appearing in courts all over the jurisdiction and from what many have shared with me (in part because I have written about judicial bullying before). Writing this blog in general terms is one limited way I can support colleagues at the bar and in other professions who frankly have it worse than I do. You know who you are.
So there we are. Please don't leave it to those of us at the coalface to sort out amongst ourselves by asking the impossible of those higher up the chain who hold far greater power than we. Please don't leave it to DFJs to sort out this impossible task - its like feeding the five thousand. Please don't allow a situation to develop where professionals in one area feel unable to speak up and burnout or leave as a result. By all means listen to us, but do not place upon us the responsibility to tell our superiors what to do. Sometimes the adults have to take charge.
Feature pic : Daniel Mennerich on Flickr - creative commons - thanks