Conversations in Family Law
In conversation…… Louisa Adamson and Mel Andrews, Family Law barristers continued….
Part 2: Court Hearings “Covid-Style”, supporting clients and working mothers
Mel: So you have been to Court for “in-person” hearings – how has that been?
Louisa: I remember being quite worried about going back into court when I went for the first time and there were certainly quite a few changes that had been made within the Court building. One of the less “helpful” alterations was to the conference rooms that sported signs saying “One person only” – not very conducive to being able to hold a private conversation with your client! Our arrival times were also staggered and so on occasion that meant we had very little time actually at Court prior to the start of the hearing.
We spoke previously about the difficulties you have encountered Mel in negotiating effectively when hearings are remote but I think my experience has been that even when everyone is in attendance at Court it is hard to find anywhere in the building to discuss matters with your opponent and when you couple this with staggered arrival times and an (understandable) emphasis on each case needing to conclude within its allocated time slot the scope for negotiating has been reduced considerably.
A real problem with the hybrid hearings (where some parties attend Court in person and others are on the CVP link) is that the advocates are often unable to speak prior to the hearing as those representing the parents are travelling to Court and having to adhere to stipulated arrival times that might be as late as 9.45am for a 10am hearing.
Having said that I had a clear sense that a lot of thought had gone into how the Courts in Kent could be made safe for everyone. The cleaners were very much in evidence and the staff made every effort to ensure that everyone was able to participate in the hearing. It is no easier taking instructions from across the court room than over a separate WhatsApp or email chat in fact it’s probably harder!
Louisa: How about legal news generally – what have you been reading about Mel?
Mel: I know there’s been lots in the news about women at the bar combining motherhood and a career. In some ways the advent of remote working has made this more possible but I think it has always been achievable with a supportive clerking team and the right attitude within chambers. Certainly we’ve both been able to do both! I am always saddened when I hear that people have been told that it is too difficult and felt they had to leave the bar (or not even start!) to be parents. It is absolutely not the case and I think all of us who have successfully combined the roles need to shout it out loud so that everyone can see what is possible.
Louisa: It’s right that both you and I have been able to combine work and parenting. I always felt that being at the Bar was one of the careers that it was more possible to combine with being a mum as, being self-employed, I could take time off each year during the school holidays and was able to (generally) attend events that the boys really wanted me at. It was not always easy though and when I look at my own situation it’s clear to me that I have had a lot more support than many people have. My mother worked when my sisters and I were growing up so she knew how tricky it could be! On a number of occasions she got in a car at 6am and drove for 2 hours to look after a sick child and let me get to Court (just) in time! Being at a provincial set has also made it easier I suspect as we generally do not have to travel as far and our clerks have always been very supportive. I’ve got my share of “horror stories” though…..being on the way to nursery / Court and one boy throwing up all over himself and me and once having to interrupt a conference to rescue the younger one as he had locked himself in the loo in chambers (they had escaped my room where they had been instructed to stay with biscuits and a film until dad got there!).
Mel: Yes, you’re right there are some unique challenges thrown up as a parent at the bar! Whilst pregnant I became notorious for often making a hasty exit due to morning sickness (which lasted the whole pregnancy and was not confined to the morning!). I think it is easier at the provincial bar, mainly because you get to know all the local solicitors, Judges and court staff well so that when things go wrong you have a relationship with those people to lean in on. However I actually think what makes it possible to practice is the overall attitude of chambers. If you are in a supportive set that has a realistic attitude to part time working and that demonstrates understanding and kindness in those emergency situations (that will inevitably arise from time to time) then I think you could practice anywhere. I think that in 2021 that should be a basic expectation in any working environment. I can see no reason why London chambers should be exempt.
My top tip of the month is to practice booking some time out of your diary and defending it when the inevitable request to ‘squeeze’ in a ‘straightforward’ case comes along! The more often you do it the easier it gets. You can also do some assertiveness training to learn how to say no. Also if you are struggling reach out to a more senior member and ask how they deal with the same issue. Sometimes there are simple changes that can transform your practice.
Louisa: Hopefully by the time we next speak things will have returned to “normal” or at least a “new normal”. It will be interesting to see the results of the “Working Lives” survey that the Bar Council is undertaking. Perhaps some helpful new initiatives will come out of it that will counteract the findings of the Resolution Survey (released May 2021) that 1 in 4 family lawyers are contemplating leaving the profession post lockdown.
My legal Top Tips this month: (1) read the summary of the law relating to fact-finding hearings in the Judgment I referred to in last month’s conversation if you haven’t already! and (2) ensure you have read the temporary guidance issued by CAFCASS on 12th May 2021 that is designed to assist Family Court Advisers when making recommendations about how to progress cases where the ability to access a Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Programme (DAPP) is severely restricted.
Next Conversation due October / November