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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you have a fixed time listing, it may cause difficulties if you overrun, although most judges will be flexible if they can be.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.