Tips from the District Bench

I have a great deal of sympathy for the DJs. They have been bearing much of the burden these past many months : keeping things afloat (just about), patiently dialling in the parties and advocates litigant by litigant, lawyer by lawyer, on the blasted telephone conferencing system…dealing with case after case on screen and mountain upon mountain of box work, trying to find a way to steer the wagon of justice to its destination when the very wobbly wheels of that wagon are threatening to roll off into the canyon at every moment. All the judges have had a pretty rotten time of it to be honest, especially those who have had the worry of being in court combined with the difficulties of remote and hybrid hearings – but I sense the pressure on the DJs has probably been most relentless.

So, I thought it was very kind of one such District Judge to take the time to put together a response to my recent ‘woe is me’ blog post, in which I worried about the adjustments that would be required in getting back to court. I know from the responses I got I’m not the only lawyer to be feeling this way, so I hope that the message is helpful – it is important that judges, court staff, lawyers and other professionals hold in mind the pressures and stresses on each other group of colleagues and this exchange of supportive messages is therefore really encouraging.

Here is my original post :

And here is the message from my anonymous correspondent (I don’t know who s/he is, so no point in asking me).

Dear Lucy,

I was interested to read your blog the other week. As a DJ that sits in a court that has been open, and remained open, since the beginning of July last year, I thought these suggestions might be helpful:

  1. If you are worried about attending a particular court, ask to see its risk assessment. Every court has one, and you are entitled to see it. 
  2. If you or your client have a particular vulnerability or concern, please make the judge aware, in confidence, preferably in advance, so that any additional measures can be considered.
  3. Register for the Professional Court Users Access scheme so you can skip searches and zip through security. If your court doesn’t yet operate this, bring as little as possible with you. If you bring a handbag security will empty it into a tray as they are not allowed to touch your belongings.
  4. Mask wearing is mandatory unless you are exempt. If you are, HMCTS will give you a sunflower lanyard so you are not challenged by security.
  5. Court will be a very different place from when you were last there (at least in the family and civil courts). No crowded waiting areas, no block lists, social distancing markers and hand sanitiser everywhere. Expect to see the courtroom being touch cleaned between every hearing.
  6. If you have a fixed time listing, it may cause difficulties if you overrun, although most judges will be flexible if they can be.
  7. Don’t complain if there are not enough conference rooms, most of them are being used by court staff who have to socially distance or may be vulnerable themselves. – try to have a conference with your client before you come to court.
  8. Don’t get too close to your client to take whispered instructions during a hearing – you still have to socially distance inside the courtroom. In my court, I am happy for you to ask to take a short break to take instructions in private outside, or text each other silently.
  9. Don’t assume that the courtroom can necessarily accommodate your pupil or trainee solicitor, and instructing solicitor. All courtrooms have safe number limits – check in advance. We will accommodate as many as it is safe to do, especially those learning their trade. 
  10. Tell your client not to bring family members with them, unless they have a particular vulnerability. All court buildings can only safely accommodate a finite number of people, and we are trying to keep footfall to a minimum. 
  11. Don’t assume every court has the technology or staff support to facilitate large numbers of remote hearings. Many still do not. If you need to request it, do so well in advance so we can make appropriate arrangements.
  12. Please don’t ask for a remote hearing before checking it is what your client prefers and that they have the technology and an appropriate location to access it without interruptions. It’s their case, and they are entitled to feel they have had a fair hearing.
  13. If you see anything that doesn’t look right or gives you cause for concern, eg potential overcrowding,  alert a member of staff or security straight away, so we can address it.
  14. It’s natural to be anxious and Judges understand that. I have found that most advocates are reassured after their first visit, and enjoy the social interaction once more, as do we.

I think I want to pre-empt comment from legal aid family lawyers that the idea we might ‘try to have a conference with your client before you come to court’ is probably unrealistic for a number of reasons, and remind readers that DJ work is a broad range of both children and civil work – and that the DJ probably has in mind the many cases in which it will be both possible and sensible to plan ahead in this way.

7 thoughts on “Tips from the District Bench

  1. The vast majority of family courts have managed relatively easily with Phone/Video remote/hybrid hearings.

    District Judges as well as Magistrates and others have found the system works well for parties and for them for the most part.

    I hope that we will continue having the majority of hearings remotely, having done hearings most days over the Covid era so far.

    Pointless to drag people to court, costing them often a considerable amount in money and time.

    The only real beneficiaries from hearings In-Person face-to-face are Lawyers who charge for travel and time at court.

    We now have a system that increasingly works for the Users without unnecessarily inconveniencing them financially and timewise.

    Let’s keep on improving Remote/Hybrid hearings rather than going back in time to the nonsense days of pre-Covid where hosts of people crowded into Courts frequently waiting hours to get into court for a relatively short hearing.

    • I am not sure what your direct experience is Sprite, but I have to disagree with ‘The only real beneficiaries from hearings In-Person face-to-face are Lawyers who charge for travel and time at court.’ Firstly, because for many litigants remote justice is definitely second rate, and they really need and want a face to face hearing and to be able to communicate with their lawyers and the judge. There are some who prefer online for a range of reasons, but the picture is pretty mixed. So I would disagree with the suggestion that litigants don’t or can’t benefit from in person hearings. And secondly, I don’t think that the suggestion that lawyers themselves benefit from face to face really holds water either. We would probably all prefer to be back face to face for some of the time, but we don’t ‘benefit’ from spending hours wasted travelling or waiting when we could be working (and contrary to your comment many of us aren’t paid meaningfully / at all for the travel and waiting time as legal aid just doesn’t recognise or value that time) – in crime the cost of travel sometimes means lawyers are paying to work! In fact if one wanted to look at the strict financial position lawyers would probably benefit from remote work because they can manage a bigger caseload by working between hearings on other cases.
      There are definitely up sides to remote working and we should try and keep those in the system – pointless travel should be avoided when a hearing doesn’t really need face to face attendance, but by the same token where there is a hearing with evidence or where a party has expressed a wish to be at court then that should be supported.

  2. Can I raise again a point I mentioned right at the beginning of Lockdown 1, about a million years ago?

    We are told that some litigants where domestic abuse or violence is alleged or has been found do not want to see or be seen by the other party. In court that is sometimes possible to accommodate – and sometimes not, if for example the hearing is in a DJ’s small room with one oblong table and everyone sitting round it.

    How is this working in remote hearings? It seems to me that if the litigant doesn’t want to be seen she can turn off her video, but if she wants the judge and counsel to see her – and they may find it hard to communicate with her if they can’t – she must accept the opponent seeing her too. As in a courtroom so online: the presence of the other party is not an, optional extra.

    • In my experience its a mix. Some who complain of DA are happier at home, others as you indicate find it intrusive or difficult.
      I have dealt with hearings where a witness needed to be seen by the judge but not some other person – and where the person who was not to see disconnected and dialled in by phone, or where they connected on a device where the camera input was switched off. I think that in other cases (by report) it can be done with running two platforms simultaneously, but I dare say that is a technical headache.

    • oh and I’ve also had cases where witnesses have asked for the other party (Their ex) to turn off their camera whilst they give evidence so the witness isn’t distracted by face pulling / stares etc – but the difficulty with that is some judges want to see the reactions of the party not in the witness box as the witness gives evidence. Much depends on the context. I’ve certainly had judges direct a party to turn off their camera to prevent the face pulling which was clearly designed to put off the witness, or at any rate was insensitive to her.

  3. The reality is most family barristers/solicitors top up their very well compensated privately paid work with legal aid work.

    Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to be working on their VAT returns so very often.

    • or they subsidise their very badly paid legal aid work with privately paid work?
      don’t really understand the reference to vat returns. their frequency is entirely unrelated to income levels.

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