If you’re anything like me this headline got your hackles right up :
No, thunk I. It’s not helpful. But it’s also fictional. Who is this “young social worker” said to be “reflect[ing] on their first experiences in the courtroom”? I had my special patronising eye rolls at the ready.
But then I read it. And he has a point. Because, hackneyed and stereotyped as the headline may be, this young social worker was not speculating, but describing his actual experience (yes, yes the clue was in the strapline I quoted above).
He describes lawyers asking “multi-layered questions peppered with jargon”, wondering if there is a better way. Cringe. Yes, there is a better way – and most decent advocates know it. This should not be how it is in court.
None of us are perfect of course, though I have to observe that the social work profession may need to look at its own use of jargon sometimes too…it is quite difficult not to use jargon when asking questions about the jargon laden reports we are challenging.
Our young social worker goes on, with more descriptions straight from the Dummies Guide to Bad Advocacy :
Often under this questioning it feels that legalese takes over and facts and truth are distorted. Questions such as ‘It is right isn’t it that if we consider X, then Y must be true’ and ‘It is not the case is it, that this actually happened, and your version of said events was in fact false, yes?’.
Oh dear. We aren’t covering ourselves in glory here, are we? At least nobody said “I poot it too yoo…”. If this is an accurate account of the sort of questioning that is happening, we really need to give ourselves a detention.
I’m less sympathetic with the complaint that barristers were “targeting [his] relative lack of experience in years practising to discredit and unsettle” him. Whilst one shouldn’t do it just for laughs, it IS a legitimate line of questioning – and one which I have used on occasion to devastating effect – most often when a young social worker is dumped with something way beyond their competence. This is sometimes necessary. And it isn’t done just for theatre or for kicks. I can quite understand though, that the experience described of a barrister “wrongly surmising in her submission that [the social worker] was both younger than the parents and would in effect struggle to understand parenting” would leave the social worker feeling insulted.
Where I part company with the author of this piece is his criticism here :
I’ve also seen barristers chat and laugh about their private and social lives in the courtroom while families look on, unsure about whether this is correct or not. I felt it was a little farcical.
I’ve seen some insensitive lawyers, some insensitive judges and some insensitive social workers in my time. There is a need to have your antenna up. But I think that the idea that we should pretend we don’t have lives or children, and must completely compartmentalise our lives is naive and misplaced. Firstly, from a selfish point of view this is our workplace, day in and day out. And yes, in the moments between evidence we do sometimes exchange chit chat about the stuff that happens when we are not in court. The job we do is not often fun, and it’s important to retain some semblance of a normal life when possible. But more importantly, it’s also important to allow clients to see that those involved in the system that is scrutinising their lives are human too. And patronising to think they should be shielded by us being barred from normal social interactions. There is a limit of course – some things shared would be upsetting, some are just private and none of anybody’s business. So it’s important not to overshare, and to be alert to inappropriate hilarity or unprofessional remarks. But clients often want to know and are reassured by knowing that I have a normal life too, that I’ve got kids at home, that I understand its tough being a parent because I have my own home crises too. And a little light relief in a trial situation can often make the unbearable just about bearable – can soften the edges of the formal, adversarial court process that the social worker is complaining of. Clients often appreciate a bad joke or some banal chat about whats on the news or some trivial matter. The social worker says that in the court environment “you can share little, or no, communication often because of the context”. Yes the context is different, but the need to communicate as humans remains, and the court process doesn’t prevent that. Whilst clients may think it odd if opposing lawyers are too pally, it is not necessary to behave like sworn enemies throughout the proceedings. It isn’t a theatre, and we don’t have to stay “in character”.
Finally, he muses about the impact of the court process on the ability to work collaboratively with families :
In social work it is important to be collaborative and work in partnership with families. Is court a place where this could ever happen? How could one work towards the removal of a child, yet work in collaboration if it is done against the parents’ wishes?
And here I think he is muddling up two things : it is not the court environment which makes it a hard task for a social worker to achieve a collaborative relationship with parents : It is a feature of the coercive role a child protection social worker is required to play. I hope it isn’t too patronising to say to this young social worker : that’s life in child protection social work – it is very difficult to be their chum when you are asking to take away their kids. That is a hard burden to carry when you are young, passionate and idealistic and your motivation is to help families and children – but it isn’t the fault of the court or the lawyers.
For all that though, this article is a reminder that we could all do better to make the court experience less jarring, less discombobulating – more humane – for all those participating in it. Whether the participants are frightened and hostile parents, inexperienced social workers or anyone else. And from what this young man is describing we lawyers could usefully reflect on our own language and behaviour, and continue to work on it. It may not be a theatre, but there are always others watching our performance.