Posted on | May 18, 2013 | 6 Comments
This week I attended a lecture by our new Designated Family Judge here in Bristol, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, to inform the legal community about modernisation, the new PLO and how things will be in the new world order. Although some of the lecture dealt with local approach to particular issues, the majority of it will, I think, be illuminating for those practising further afield. So below are my notes of that lecture. Lawyers beware.
- Collaboration (team work)
- Change (recognise and accept)
Posted on | May 15, 2013 | 11 Comments
Just thought I’d pop in and say hi. I am still here, not-blogging away quietly.
I’m freshly arrived back from completing the annual bar survey, which prompted all sorts of deep consideration of life and the future. To respond to the questions I had to tot up how many hours a week I work (don’t ask) and rate my feelings about life at the bar and such things as where I think I might be in 2 years time (cue ambivalent and contradictory responses). Frankly who knows. It occured to me as I box ticked my way through said survey that I could have had four children adopted by then, if only I could gestate them quick enough…
According to all the despondent solicitors I’ve been grimly sipping coffee with this week (actually I’ve been slurping tea but you get my drift), we’ll all be sailing down the swannee in a gravy boat with a corpulent pussy cat and a five pound note. I paraphrase…
You see what happens when my work life balance is all wrong and I’m working too many hours? I’m getting slightly hysterical and surreal. But the problem is we are surrounded by other over worked slightly hysterical family lawyers and the only time we pause for breath is over coffee, when we compare how depressed we are, like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover with their competitive battle scars. It’s not healthy.
But seriously, I have been working too hard. It’s not often I can’t find time to blog and I haven’t lately. Every case I get is a mammoth read. And every brief arrives in the nick of time (if by “nick of time” you mean in sufficient time to allow all the papers to be read without making allowance for cooking dinner, sleep, or generally doing anything between the hours of 7.30am and bed other than work)…Oh how I long for those slender ex parte non mol briefs of my youth.
And by jiminee it is grim talking to family solicitors these days. I’ve listened to a number of utterly dedicated and highly experienced partners talk about how they are working themselves into the ground trying to keep their firms vaguely viable, about how stressed they are with responsibility for employees, clients, families – about how they feel they may no longer be doing good nor even doing “no harm”. I’ve heard an expert opine that “We didn’t come into this work to do shoddy child protection work” (a reference to the new style swift and short expert report). Yes. The froth has gone from our coffee…Even the inappropriate black humour is drying up. The bar (in pockets at least) remain a bit more blissfully distanced from reality. They’re still drinking lattes the fools.
A piece of legal advice – do not have coffee with a family lawyer. Ever. It might be catching.
On another coffee related note, several of the depressed tweeting lawyers (we are legion) have been pondering our next incarnation in a post-bar utopia. Barista was the obvious option since it requires only a small amount of tipex in order to enable us to recycle our business cards. But it lacks creativity. Personally I think my plan to launch a coffee shop replete with photocopy, print and internet facilities for disorganised litigants in person in the vacant shop next door to the Bristol Civil Justice Centre is a stroke of genius, if only because it presents an opportunity to think up mildly (very mildly) amusing names. “Copy Latte” is my fave. Or “Copyteria” or “Triplicup”… I could go on. My skill with words is a key transferable skill you know.
So anyway, in this coffee shop litigants in person (or disorganised and disguised lawyers) could access basic legal reference materials, quickly locate and print an authority from Bailli or wherever, photocopy that massive document they sent only to the judge – whilst the lawyers could use our app to order a coffee and sandwich surreptitiously under the desk whilst the judge isn’t looking (thereby dispensing with the need to take ANY lunch break at all – hurrah). Perhaps if I call my coffee shop a “Hub of Justice” (like Wheel of Fortune only with more arbitrary results) it will attract some social entrepeneurial start up tax relief or an MoJ grant…. (civil servants like HUBS).
Oh and I forgot to say – customers who could prove they had suffered domestic violence would get a free jammie dodger. I need to do some work on my business model and pricing structure but I’m pretty sure that the profit from the latte drinking lawyers could subsidise the photocopying costs of the litigants in person OR that the profits from the hordes of carrier bag wielding litigants in person might enable us to set up a project to feed impecunious lawyers or to carry out conservation work to save them from extinction. One or the other….
I think my Dragon’s Den pitch is really shaping up, don’t you?
Posted on | May 5, 2013 | 5 Comments
You know that thing when the Daleks get a bit hot under the carapace and spin around in confused fashion before grinding to a smokey halt, toilet plunger wilting at a jaunty angle? That. That is the feel of those of us struggling to absorb the vast amounts of new guidance, update and direction.
Oh for a sonic screwdriver. Or an alcoholic one. My inbox has steam coming out of its ears.
So. What do we have?
“A View From The Presidents’ Chambers” Part Deux, in which our hero Munby observes that said view is not so much of a distant horizon but a very proximate wall. Or – to depart from my foolish analogies and feeble sarcasm to give you some actual information – in which he tells us all about the revised PLO (or to be accurate the still-being-revised-PLO, since it’s not yet finished). Headlines : the first CMH will take place on day 12. Thresholds will be shorter (e.g. “the parents are flaky”). And (as if this were an idea no-one thunk of before) it will henceforth be the expectation that Local Authority documents will be replete with analysis and assessment will be evidence based. *paddington stare*. There will be new arrangements for disclosure of certain documents by list and on request, whilst others must be provided as a matter of course. So we are to expect Local Authorities to present their cases in shipshape fashion. I wouldn’t argue with that.
In truth, much of this sounds very sensible (although it’s difficult to get a grip on it without seeing the actual guidance), but it remains to be seen how effective it will be if one limb of the family justice system does not keep up its end of the deal. And Munby makes no bones – it’s 26 weeks or else*.
A new PD on Committals in the Court of Protection and Family Division – in essence, hearings may be in private only exceptionally, and where such a course is taken a public judgment must be given setting out the reasons for taking that course, and where a person is committed for contempt of court the court must state publicly the findings made and the punishment given. There is I suspect, some back story to this which I have not had time to pick up on. I don’t know if it relates to this or this or this (although that case appears now to be in the criminal arena).
Following on from the LASPO detonation day on 1 April the Law Society have issued guidance for family solicitors who are now mopping up with assorted unbundled services to clients. The Bar Standards Board have issued new Public Access Guidance in light of the changes announced recently to end the 3 year call rule and the prohibition on taking on clients who might qualify for legal aid, and no doubt in anticipation of a significant post-LASPO increase in the use of public access cases. Incidentally, I’ve written an article in the Solicitors Journal about LiPs post LASPO which touches on issues relating to public access (you need to login to read it in full, but you can get a free 2 week trial).
“Finally, this case demonstrates again the crucial role played by the specialist family bar and solicitors. The role played by all of the representatives for all of the parties in this case has been of the utmost importance. All judges are very concerned at the prospect of an increase in self-represented litigants and the consequences for the family justice system. Not enough recognition is given to the contribution to the family justice system made by family lawyers.”
Also – see Suesspiciousminds blog on the recent JR judgment wherein the Legal Aid Agency (LSC if you’re old skool) got a slap in the face with a wet fish for arguing they didn’t need to give reasons for refusing prior authority.
I won’t bore you with the assorted local guidance and initiatives – which helpfully fill those tiny interstices between sleep and work just nicely. If we stop we might contemplate, so best keep busy.
Frankly, after all that, I find I have insufficient energy to return to my dalek analogy to wrap up…Save to offer you a quote from Davros himself : “The Children of Time are moving against us, but everything is falling into place” which sounds as if it ought to hold some profound meaning in this context even if I don’t quite know what that might be…pretty much how I feel about each piece of new guidance as it lands… (as you can see the daleks are an analogy brimming with potential, but I’m too knackered to care).
Tell me when I can come out from behind the sofa.
* for “else” read “tribunal”
Posted on | April 25, 2013 | 9 Comments
It is a truth universally acknowledged that at least 90% of people who work with children have not a clue about parental responsibility. Well, perhaps not universally acknowledged, and perhaps not 90%. And perhaps some of them have a little bit of a clue, but a little bit of a clue is a dangerous thing. A lot of the people you might expect to have a basic working knowledge of PR in fact operate on the basis of an entirely fictional version of parental responsibility. Teachers are the prime example. They’re good at being teachers, rubbish at understanding PR. This is not the fault of teachers – their employers, the local authorities – someone – ought to train them. It does matter because they have care and control of children who are under care orders, who are subject to orders restricting their contact or where there is parental conflict or uncertainty or disagreement about contact or residence arrangements. And they need to know whether or not they can, should, must release information or let the child go with a particular adult. And sadly they get it wrong alarmingly frequently – most often refusing to provide information a parent with PR is entitled to.
And the same is true of hospitals, particularly children’s wards. Of which I have had some recent experience. This week, on arrival at the ward with sprog 2.0, and in the course of answering the same series of obligatory questions for the umpteenth time, I gave my husband’s name and, reading ahead to the next question, volunteered that yes, he did have parental responsibility. “Oh no” said the lovely lovely nurse, “He doesn’t have PR if you’re married. Since 2000 he only has PR if he’s on the birth certificate”.
I couldn’t help it. I had to correct him. (Married dads always have PR. Since 2003 (not 2000) unmarried dads can also acquire PR by being on the birth certificate).
It wouldn’t have jarred so much, but the nurse had just given me the admission spiel about the ward rules, which included security – “Don’t let any other adult in to the ward, we have some sensitive cases here and some parents have restricted access (for which read care / child protection / suspected NAI cases, whose babies or children might be removed on discharge), and some of the parents whose children are here long term get quite frustrated”. So knowing who has PR really does matter. And professionals like our lovely young nurse, with the bedside manner that won over my reluctant three year old, really deserve proper training on this issue.
It’s probably not top of the list of priorities for teachers or health workers. But it does matter. And it is really a pretty simple topic to grasp.
Posted on | April 18, 2013 | 63 Comments
Today Margaret Thatcher was buried. I didn’t listen to the wall to wall coverage as I was in court, on a legal aid brief in the kind of case that would probably not attract legal aid if it commenced now (in fact there were dv issues, but I’m doubtful my client could have jumped the evidential hoops).
It is said that the cost of the funeral will be around £10 million. As I write, George Osborne’s tear is selling on ebay for £10 million – a mere drop in the ocean compared to the recent cuts to legal aid and the level of savings the government hopes it will make (£350 million).
Actually, I can’t tell you how much legal advice and representation £10 million would get you at legal aid rates. I had hoped to be able to give you a snappy stat. But the LSC is now the LAA, and the old labyrinthine but familiar website is gone and replaced with the labyrinthine and sterile justice.gov.uk where I can find even less useful information than even on the horrific LSC website. It’s like looking for a needle in a blindingly white haystack. And it’s late.
But I can tell you this. The same amount of money we’ve spent on affording respect and dignity to the importance of one person on this one day could cover the cost of representation on many days for many people : making sure fathers are remembered, victims of violence get their dignity back, and that the rights of all are respected.
Today many mourn Thatcher. Others mourn different losses.
Posted on | April 12, 2013 | 49 Comments
Litigants in Person are a lot like armadillos. I know this: I’ve written a book about them (Litigants in Person not armadillos). Although, unlike Harry Enfield, I’ve found them sometimes to be a bit more spiky than smooth.
But I’ve been thinking about the internal bit a lot lately, because I think it’s the key to working out how to handle that spiky exterior.
Last week I were on t’telly. I travelled all the way up to Salford to Media City, to a world full of producers and makeup artists and green rooms full of pain au chocolat, and I sat on that red BBC Breakfast sofa and tried to pretend I wasn’t petrified. I only had to talk for about 20 seconds, and to answer questions I can happily answer without a thought – when I’m in my comfort zone. I’m told I didn’t look like the rabbit in headlights that I felt myself to be, that I looked calm and collected and sounded reasonable. But looks are deceptive. Like a Dime Bar. Sort of. Read more
Posted on | April 1, 2013 | 25 Comments
It’s been a slow burn folks – Family Courts Without a Lawyer was published in 2011, and many were the perplexed looks and guffaws from colleagues at the bar back then. They thought I was nuts, some thought I was possibly mildly treacherous.
But now it’s all the rage. It’s like Gangnam or Super Samurai Power Rangers I tell you (well, in our house anyways). This is the closest to trendy I will ever be.
The Bar Council have this week published their long awaited Guidance for litigants in person, under the headline “We won’t stand by as vulnerable people suffer”. It has been produced in conjunction with various Specialist Bar Associations, including the Family Law Bar Association, and covers general court process as well as specific areas of law. It was gratifying to see the reference in the family section to Family Courts Without A Lawyer. Oh yes people. I have arrived.
But also racing up the charts are The Civil Justice Council, with their Guide to Small Claims for Litigants in Person, produced no doubt as penance for the introduction of the guerrilla term “Self Represented Litigants” which diverted us for the better part of 18 months.
And pop pickers, there’s a Guide for Litigants in Person dealing with Interim Applications in The Queen’s Bench Division coming in at number 3 (a bit “niche” if you ask me ).
Although the first implementation update in respect of the modernisation programme from Sir Ernest Ryder says “The MoJ is working with the Family Justice Council on guidance for SRLs in both children and financial remedy cases”, that was December and there is no mention of it in the second implementation update in February. I may have missed it but I can’t see anything on the FJC or MoJ websites so assume that it is either a work in progress or that it’s been ditched upon realising that there was duplication of effort going on.
We professionals have got Practice Directions and Rule amendments coming out of our ears, but it’s striking that the only Guidance for Litigants in Person specifically dealing with family courts that is available by the date of implementation of LASPO (today) comes not from HMCTS, not from the MoJ, not from the FJB or FJC, not from the judiciary….but from the bar.
[Postscript : Erk. Late night paranoia has set in. Lest there be any doubt in your mind my tongue was firmly in my cheek for the duration of this post - I am not the complete and utter ego maniac I may appear if you were to read it dead pan. As you were...]
Posted on | April 1, 2013 | No Comments
Nope…Can’t do it.
I had in mind a sort of black-humour April Fool : LASPO repealed, Jackson placed on hold, Theresa May and Abu Hamza go into shoewear business together – that sort of thing,
But I’m not in the mood. No fluffy bunnies round here.
Legal aid has been done in, and I worked most of Good Friday, and lost an hour’s sleep this weekend. I didn’t even get to gorge myself on chocolate.
Happy Easter. We will be needing those May bank holidays.
Posted on | March 29, 2013 | 45 Comments
Transparency in family justice is an issue that cannot be swept under the carpet – it ain’t going away. This week Christopher Booker wrote a piece in the Telegraph (bluntly titled “Australia’s scandal of forced adoption is happening here in Britain“) in which he drew a parallel between the forced adoptions in Australia, for which Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently apologised, and the child protection system in this jurisdiction, remarking that “Our own forced adoption scandal is a tragedy just as terrifying as anything that happened in Australia all those years ago“. Reading that article the uninformed might not appreciate that there are some pretty important distinctions between the scandal in Australia decades ago and the child protection system here and now. Like a legal and regulatory framework. Like judicial scrutiny and sanction. You cannot
snatch forcibly remove a baby from the care of his parents in this country without a court order, except in very limited circumstances and then only for a matter of hours in case of emergency. You cannot do so on ground of the marital status or financial means of the mother (or father). But of course the privacy that comes with our family justice system allows these hysterical versions of reality – with vicious unaccountable social workers and wanton child snatching – to be perpetuated, and to spread fear and to corrode public confidence. (A slight aside – for an example of a child snatching myth busted, see the judgment of Cobb J reported this week in LM (A Child), Re  EWHC 646 (Fam) wherein the notion that catching a ferry to Ireland before delivery of a baby will avoid the child protection process.)
But things are changing and have been for a while, notwithstanding the utter failure of government to grapple effectively with this thorny problem (see Children Schools & Families Act 2010). Just take as three examples the recent case of Bristol CC v C & Ors  EWHC 3748 in which an injunction was lifted to enable the naming of a social worker by The Sun, the widely reported case wherein Mostyn J lifted reporting restrictions in a case of interest to Mr Booker (which I blogged about here), and this week, reports of the High Court allowing named reporting of a local councillor’s conviction for being drunk in charge of her toddler daughter in a supermarket on public interest grounds (it appears from the report in the context of reporting restrictions arising from criminal rather than family proceedings), although in that case the facts were not run of the mill, since the Mother was a public official. Read more
Posted on | March 27, 2013 | No Comments
The updating chapter to Family Courts Without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person is now available for download on the nofamilylawyer.co.uk website. If you have a 2011 copy you can download it, or if you are buying for the first time the 2013 reprint will incorporate that chapter. Order your copy online now.
A mini summary : A lot has changed but even more is due to change!!
I’m still planning to write a Second Edition for 2014 when the court structure and the Children Act are due to change, but those who have purchased 2011 or 2013 issues will be able to get a discount on that edition.
By the way, you may like to follow the twitter account @nofamilylawyer
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