This morning, finding myself in Leeds and with a morning to spare I attended Leeds Family Court to try a spot of legal blogging in a court that I was unfamiliar with.
I arrived by 9.15am (slightly later than planned thanks to the genius of google maps) and on enquiring where I would find the ushers was swiftly pointed towards the court counter and a bell. The bell miraculously produced a smiling staff member in quick time, and I explained that I wanted to attend under the pilot, quickly identifying a judge from the list on the wall beside me who had a listed hearing that looked as if it fell under the scheme. That judge’s clerk was summoned and I explained the scheme and provided her with my passport and practising certificate and undertaking form. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘We’ve not had anyone come before you see’. I was sent to wait on the second floor.
The waiting area was empty bar one person when I arrived, who was chatting about Christmas plans to the security guard. Whilst I waited various colleagues arrived and began discussing the case that they were to deal with that day. There was just me within earshot, and I suspect that subliminally the fact I was visibly a lawyer (by my laptop and black suit uniform) will have meant that I was ‘safe’. But that isn’t always a reliable way to work out who might be listening in on your conversations (as I discovered when misidentifying the young women who sat down next to me as the mother and her solicitor in a case, and wondering if I should move in case they were in the case I wanted to sit in on – they turned out to be a pair of social workers who were evidently very nervous about being at court and meeting their barrister). I was at court today in a quasi-journalistic role – had I been an actual journalist I suppose I might have gathered the information disclosed by the lawyers about their case and reported it, given that it was shared in a public space and not subject to the protections of s12 AJA 1960 (as Munby J (as he then was) reminded us journalists were entitled to do in the Kent County Council case in 2004). Obviously though, that is not something I am going to do (and in truth, it wasn’t very interesting anyway). In making this observation I note that you could see the same in any court up and down the country on most days – although often the waiting area is so full that the hum of other people’s chatter provides some cover. Personally, I would seriously doubt any family lawyer who suggested they have never been guilty of this. Sometimes there is NOWHERE private available, and sometimes we are just slacker than we should be. A useful reminder to us all that the walls have ears.
Anyway, by 9.45am there was no news and I was getting twitchy – my last experience of attending court under the pilot taught me that it was best to let the parties know before the hearing what was planned so that they could ask any questions and avoid any anxieties. I went to check with the clerk, who explained the judge whose hearing I’d asked to sit in on thought another judge’s list might be more interesting and enquiries were being made. I said that was fine, and that I’d like to try and introduce myself to the parties before we started – she agreed to come back and tell me the plan, let the parties in the relevant case know herself and then I could introduce myself… Except then all of a sudden it was 10.00am and I was told I was going downstairs to a hearing and it was about to start – so we frogmarched down the stairs to court 6. In fact the parties and judge were already in court when I arrived with the clerk. I asked the clerk if the parties knew I was coming in – she wasn’t sure but as the judge was expecting me she suggested it was ok to enter. As I entered the courtroom a witness was being sworn, so it wasn’t appropriate to interrupt to introduce myself. The judge saw me but didn’t acknowledge my presence. In my experience when an unfamiliar face enters a courtroom in this sort of hearing all pens will drop, and all faces will turn and the intruder will be challenged (they are usually a tourist or wandering member of the public who hasn’t realised the hearing was private). But nobody paid me any mind. ‘Ah’, I thought, ‘They must have been told to expect me’.
The hearing I attended was what I later discovered was day 19 (so far) of a fact finding exercise in care proceedings, concerning unexplained injuries to a baby. It was being heard at High Court level which indicates some complexity even for a case of this broad type. The witness who was being sworn as I came in was one of the parents. I counted 24 heads of lawyers and parties – I think there were at least 7 parties but it was difficult to tell. Most, but not all of the lawyers were working from electronic bundles and taking notes by typing. The judge herself wrote with a silver pen and was surrounded by box files. The hearing room was large and set out in four rows of about 7 per row, all filled with parties and advocates. I sat on the row of seats against the back wall. The décor had a curious 80s hotel feel, with green patterned carpet and reddish patterned curtains with pleated pelmets. The hum of a wall of air conditioning units and the tap tap tapping of fingers on keyboards made it difficult to hear the witness from the back, who had to be repeatedly reminded to try and speak up. The judge was calm and polite, interjecting gently when needed – for pace or volume or the odd inappropriate question.
It isn’t legally permissible or appropriate to go into the details of the case in this post, and indeed what I heard today was only a snippet of a much wider canvas of evidence. As is very familiar to civil and family lawyers, there was much reference to and confirmation of witness statements and documents in the bundle, which inevitably makes the proceedings much more difficult for anyone but the judge and lawyers to follow. I doubt that I would have been able to make much sense of the evidence today had I not conducted similar trials in the past. The questioning followed a familiar rhythm and pattern. I dare say that a journalist would have found it impossible to follow and would have been gone within five minutes of their bum touching the seat to find something more reportable and worth their time. Indeed, I wondered how the lay parties were following the evidence as it unfolded, with references to E45 and B59 (or whatever) standing in lieu of an actual description. None of them had those documents in front of them (although one lady who I think was an intervening family member) had a few documents neatly organized in plastic sleeves in front of her.
It became apparent in the ensuing hour or so that counsel for the local authority had just clocked my presence in court and was craning her neck, apparently discussing with her neighbour trying to work out who I was. Nothing came of it so I concluded that it was merely an exchange to confirm ‘is that the legal blogger?’ Again, I didn’t think it was appropriate to interrupt the proceedings and thought that since the judge knew who I was I should leave this to her (As I had entered the court the clerk who had showed me in was visible behind me and I had assumed that the judge had made the connection that I was the legal blogger she had been expecting at that point, and that she had not felt it necessary to interrupt the main event to make this explicit).
It was only after a short mid morning break for the witness that the source of the confusion became apparent. I had considered using the break to go to check with counsel for the local authority whether they had been notified of my attendance – but the break was mid-way through her cross examination of the witness and she was in discussion with a colleague, so I decided to wait for a convenient moment. At this point the clerk to the court kindly approached me by name to ask if I would like any water. I took the opportunity to check whether the parties knew I was there and who I was. She said not but she would go and tell them and duly did. By this point I was very conscious I’d already sat in and heard some of the evidence and was a little anxious that the parties had not been aware of this before or during.
As most of the lawyers had remained in court I was then able to apologise that they had not been given advance notice, and to explain why I was there. Some of the lawyers hadn’t heard of the pilot scheme so I had to summarise it. All was well and then suddenly a lawyers huddle was convened outside the courtroom rather than inside where I had remained). One returned with a teasing ‘now look what you’ve done’…
Once the hearing reconvened, counsel for the LA raised the issue of my attendance with the judge, to canvas whether I ought to have applied to the judge for permission to attend at the start of the hearing. There was some slightly frantic looking up of the practice direction before the judge explained I was Lucy Reed from ‘The Transparency Unit’ (a charmingly sinister sounding misnomer), and that in fact she hadn’t known I was coming because the message about my attendance had not reached her until the adjournment and that she had not appreciated I was not ‘with’ the case when I came in (unsurprising in hindsight given the number of heads). The power of uniform strikes again.
I apologized for the mix up and was able to confirm that I had provided the necessary paperwork and signed the undertaking. One advocate was worried on behalf of their client about the risks of identification from any reporting, so I explained that s12 AJA 1960 tied my hands anyway and I would not be reporting the contents of any evidence. I think it is fair to say that neither the advocates nor the judge were familiar with the scheme, (which required me to sign a formal undertaking on my arrival at court), but in the event no objections were raised to my attendance. Whilst this exchange took place the witness was waiting patiently in the witness box, and both the judge and I conveyed our apologies for this interruption.
I was only able to stay until lunchtime, and even without the automatic constraints on the reporting of what went on in the hearing tying my hands, I think there would be little I could have usefully or fairly reported of the substance of this case from my tiny snapshot, which was clearly complex and protracted. If reporting on a trial it makes no sense to report the evidence of one witness in isolation or without the findings and outcome known. But it was a useful experience once again, to be sat at the back of court observing from a different angle, to watch things unfold without looking for points for or against your client on the day, to see a unfamiliar advocates and unfamiliar judges do their job.
What was also striking (although I have no idea whether it was representative) was that the courtroom was surprisingly calm, even at points of key challenge of evidence. This must have been a grueling trial for the lay parties with many weeks of evidence and at least some more to come after I left. But, at least whilst I was there, everything was conducted civilly and in an orderly fashion, even when certain questions were evidently upsetting or challenging. That is often the way, with overt anger or distress only occasionally punctuating most hearings. But as a detached observer witnessing this in action it seemed noteworthy.
So, more lessons in legal blogging etiquette and process really. A few still unanswered questions about how to identify the right hearing and sort out the paperwork early enough to ensure there is time to let the parties know what’s happening – and a few more trivial questions such as : Why does it feel weird going in the robing room to store your coat when you are there as a legal blogger not as an advocate? What should you do if you are in the public waiting area and people are conducting private conversations or possibly even conversations about the case you are interested in within your earshot? And when is it better to interrupt than not to interrupt?
Today’s little mix up was not ideal. It was a product of everybody’s unfamiliarity with the process. Court staff and judges were trying to help, but I am acutely aware that the parties in this case didn’t in fact have the opportunity to object before I sat in on very private evidence, and in particular one parent was in the box and on oath when this all arose, and could not take advice from his lawyer on what on earth was going on when the issue was identified. Ultimately nobody minded in the slightest that I was there, and once again I was made welcome, but it is so easy to become an inadvertent distraction or disruption when lay parties have much more important things to worry about.
I have been keen to see if the impromptu “turn up and see what’s on” – approach to legal blogging is workable, but I think it is very much pot luck and creates the risk that you will either have a wasted journey or ending up rushing into a hearing without having done the proper ground work to find out what you are going to see, to introduce yourself, and to think about whether it would be a good idea to seek documents. I think it will require more practice on my part and more familiarity on the part of judges and court staff to begin to work smoothly. I suspect that is beginning to happen in Court of Protection cases but will take some time in family cases.
I have found it acutely difficult to juggle my other commitments to make space to fit in legal blogging, and I suspect that for many others it will come far further down their priority list than it does mine.
Feature pic : Private No Entry by Brad Highham on Flickr – thanks (Creative commons)