On 10 May I attended the Family Court to see if I could attend a hearing under the Legal Blogging Pilot before heading off to collecting judgment in one of my cases at noon. I wasn’t sure that this would be very productive because of the fact I could only fit in a short hearing, and you can never be sure when a hearing will start or finish. However, I found a couple of hearings on the court list that looked like they might be do-able within my time slot and I enquired at the ushers desk. In the event I attended a hearing in a care case which involved several children, one of whom had sustained some injuries which the judge had recently found had been caused by the father.
Although I was told by the lawyers that this hearing was ‘just timetabling after a fact finding’ and that there wouldn’t be anything I’d want to report (‘too boring even for you Ms Reed’ said one, tongue in cheek) – in fact it was an interesting hearing and one that I did want to write about. Legally this case was unremarkable – but I felt that the human side of things was important to write about. The judge had sought my suggestions about how to notify the parties of my intention to attend via the usher. I suggested that the usher should notify them of my attendance and that I was available to speak to the lawyers if there were issues or queries. I did not want to interrupt discussions between lawyers or clients as I knew the parties were talking about practicalities in preparation for the hearing. I think this was a less disruptive approach to take – and although initially I had the ‘vibe’ that there might be some worries about my attendance, there was no objection to it in the end.
I hadn’t intended to come to court today and end up applying to relax reporting restrictions, especially when I had to be away by 12 – but that is exactly what I did – and this blog post is the result of that. I am grateful to the judge, the lawyers and the mother who listened to what I had to say as to what I wanted to report and why.
I took an unusual course in this case. Having listened to the hearing as it progressed it was clear that there was a long history to the case and that the judge was steeped in knowledge of the family dynamics and vulnerabilities, having conducted a long fact finding hearing that had recently concluded (which sounds as if it had some twists and turns due to late production of phone material from the police). Although findings had been made against the father (a man who it seems has some vulnerabilities himself), the mother was working with the local authority, had committed to separating from him and a rehabilitation plan was being finalized, supported by all parties. Whilst I wanted to report both the facts of the case and the way the judge dealt with the hearing I didn’t want to do anything to disrupt the process, to upset or cause anxiety to a mother who obviously had a lot on her plate.
As the hearing progressed I realized I was going to want to report the case and would have to apply at the end. I made my application as the parties were about to adjourn, realizing as I did so that I had very limited time to deal with it now before rushing off to my own hearing. I did so because it seemed to me that the type of information I wanted to publish was I thought unlikely to be controversial if I were able to sketch it out, and I framed my request as just that – a request, but one that I would not push to a formal application if it were problematic or likely to take up much time. I had worked out from what I’d seen and heard so far that the mother was likely to need reassurance about what I’d write, so I tried to make plain that I would not write anything identifiable and would be happy to take guidance on any points of detail that were thought to be identifiable (though in truth I hadn’t heard any sort of detail apart from the family’s actual names that could lead to their identification). The judge was sympathetic to my request, taking time to explain to the mother what the scheme was and that its purpose was to ‘help society’ by making information available to the public – but she was anxious to ensure the mother’s views were obtained – this led to a brief exchange where the mother was able to say to me (very bravely, and very respectfully) that she would like to know where the report would be published and that the reason she was a bit worried was because she didn’t know me and because of her ‘trust issues’ and I was able to say to her – where I would be publishing my post and that I would be happy to provide a draft of my post to her to see before publication.
This is something that I think no journalist would feel able to do – it would be seen as copy approval or editorial interference. But I’m not a journalist, I’m a legal blogger – and my function and motivation is quite different. If I come away from this hearing with no ‘copy’ to publish its disappointing, but not the end of the world. This was a case that I only wanted to write about with consent from the mother, and that was consent that I thought could be obtained with a bit of sensitivity to her feelings and quite natural anxieties. My offer seemed to produce the desired effect.
And so we left it that, providing my draft was ok by the mother, and subject to any specific points of detail that it was said should not be included to avoid identification, s12 reporting restrictions will be relaxed and I can write anonymously about this case.
I left the hearing with 20 minutes to spare before collecting my judgment. Putting myself under that sort of time pressure was not ideal, but the reality is its very hard to find time to prioritise legal blogging (even when you are motivated by the fact that it was your flipping idea in the first place).
It could have been a wasted morning – but in the event it was well worth taking a couple of hours out on the off chance, because I was able to see a snapshot of an arduous process that one mother and her children were enduring, a turning point where finally the facts had been established and this mum was working with social services and being offered a raft of support to ensure her children could come back home from foster care. There were some residual worries about her ability to separate, but the judge was clear to ensure that the social workers in charge of the rehabilitation were realistic about how hard this would be against a backdrop of a long relationship and a mother who was otherwise very isolated. The judge put in place steps to ensure that the court could assess in due course if the mother was really serious about and capable of separating, but also gave clear signals that social workers should be realistic in their expectations about communication between the parents.
What I saw from the back of court was a judge who had gained a deep understanding of the relationship between the parents, of the mother’s vulnerabilities, and who calmly, slowly and sensitively progressed this administrative – but important – hearing, to ensure that things were properly planned and executed, and so that things were fair to the father (he had left court upset, his lay advocate remained in court to feed back to him later). The judge had an obvious rapport with the mother, and engaged directly with her to good effect, allowing her, I thought, to feel a valued part of the process rather than on the periphery or excluded. She was careful to ensure that rather than taking the easy course of making a non-molestation order to keep the father away without him having been warned about it before he left court, that it should be done when he was at court, so that she could be sure he understood what he must not do and avoid getting into trouble, and so that he could have the opportunity to take advice and do so voluntarily – this prompted the response from the mother that she wanted him to do it voluntarily.
This mother has several young children that she will now gradually resume care of over the coming weeks and months. She has lots of appointments to keep and work to do to settle back into being their full time mum again, and this time to do it on her own. It must be daunting indeed and will be hard work. Court hearings are always stressful for parents, and no doubt this one was too (perhaps not helped by the stranger at the back of court) – but this hearing was calmly encouraging, constructive, and never combative and went at a pace the mother could follow. The court case will continue for a little while until that process has got some distance further, and I hope that either myself or a colleague will be able to follow it up at the next stage. If things go well it is likely to resolve by agreement at the next hearing. I’ve got my fingers crossed for them.