Through his membership of Resolution’s Children Committee, Simon Bethel recently came to be in touch with an increasingly well-known blogger who writes as Suesspicious Minds. His blog on “law, nonsense, and the nonsense of law” is clever, thought-provoking and incredibly illuminating on the matter of public law children proceedings (care, adoption, and many things in between). He kindly agreed to provide a guest blog for CFLP which takes us out of our private-law comfort zone and into the wider arena of the family justice system.
As you would expect, though his focus is on public law children proceedings many of his observations are relevant to the family justice system as a whole, including those in this article about lawyer-speak, directions and remembering that the important factors in a court case are real people and not just statistics. We hope you find this look at “the other side” interesting. We at CFLP believe that the way we treat parents who encounter the state because of concerns about their ability to parent adequately, and the effect on their children, is something that should matter to all of us. Our thanks to Suesspicious Minds for bringing these matters to the fore.
One of the peculiar features of child protection law is the coming together of three different groups, lawyers, social work professionals and real people (in the form of parents and family members) who all speak different languages. They don’t speak these different languages on purpose, it has just sort of come about over years. One of the main things that is easy for the lawyers to forget is that social workers come to Court quite often, but not all the time, and that for the family coming to Court is an unusual and daunting experience. Good lawyers will bear that in mind and make it less frightening and explain what is happening as the case goes along.
One thing that you will see, as you go to Court, is all of the lawyers huddled together with a long list of handwritten requests for the Court – this is a collaborative process to put together, with everyone having an input into things they want, or things they don’t think should go into that set of requests. If the requests can be agreed, then these are placed before the Court as a draft order, usually called “directions”.
The idea is that the “directions” are a route map, or a blueprint, for getting from where we are now, to the Court being able to make final decisions about the children and to have everything that they need. What evidence needs to be obtained, who will get it, when will they get it, how does it all get paid for? The “directions” are the “clockwork”, the nuts and bolts that will make the case work.
The shame is, that these directions, which are so important, tend to be written in lawyer language and not English, so they can seem completely impenetrable gibberish to a real person looking at them. For example, if we want to get hold of any records the police hold about the family, here’s how we end up saying it:
“The Chief Constable of Camberwick Green is invited to disclose to Camberwick Green Legal Department, by no later than 17th April, any records, notes, documents, transcripts, or such other pertinent information that they hold in relation to Chippy Minton and Mrs Cobbitt, whereupon Camerwick Green Legal Department shall file and serve such documents on the parties. There be liberty for the Chief Constable to apply, on 48 hours notice to all parties, to vary or set aside this order providing that this is done no later than 1st April.”
And that’s fairly simple compared to how we say “We want Dr Bunsen Honeydew to do a report and we want to make sure the parents don’t have to pay for it” which will normally take three paragraphs, none of which makes a lot of sense to the lawyers, never mind anyone else.
At the end of the Court hearing, which will almost entirely be about these “directions” and how the case is to proceed, invariably someone will ask about getting photocopies of the “directions” and the parent will be handed a copy for them to keep, which is about as useful as having only the Turkish-language instructions to assemble an Ikea wardrobe. But still, the parent leaves Court clutching their sheaf of paper and everyone knows exactly what is going to happen from here on out in the case.
Two things spring to my mind when I think about that.
Firstly, how important it is for the “directions” to be explained in plain English to the family, not just there and then, but later in writing, and a good lawyer will do that. (It makes me wonder whether we ought to actually write a plain English version, cutting out all of the stuff that only lawyers need to worry about, whilst we are at Court, so that everyone knows what is going on). A good lawyer will answer your questions, both at Court and before and afterwards, so that you know what is happening.
And secondly, that the lawyers in the case, and the Court, need to remember whilst we draw up our complicated little plans for how the case will run like clockwork from here on out (and it never does, no matter how complicated the plans), that what we are dealing with is real people, with real children, and real fears and worries and hopes; and to make sure that at least some of what is said in Court is not just relating to the “clockwork” and that we remember to talk about the “heartbeat” of the case as well, the children and the people, and what is happening with their lives.
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