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.

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