As I sit down to write this, the seventh set of Proceedings that I have been a Party to (yes…there’s been yet another one folks!) have come to an end. For only the second time in 3 years and six months – I am not in Proceedings.
Indeed, the reason for such a gap between Part One of “How to survive court” and Part Two of the same is because I have needed “time out” afterwards, to recuperate, to repair and to reflect. Having taken a bit of time, I now feel far more able to serve you all better and I hope this next post is useful for any families facing court, and any practitioners looking to understand and empathise better with what a parent goes through during Proceedings.
Part Two – How to Survive Court
In Part One, I tried to deal with the practicalities of how to navigate your way to the Court, both physically and emotionally. In Part Two, I want to look at the experience of a Court Hearing, what to expect, and how to cope with it in the best way.
You will be called, either over a tannoy, or by the Court Clerk, to go into the courtroom itself, often by your case number. Your barrister will know to listen out for it so don’t worry about missing it. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your own number if you can, and actually a good focus when you’re sitting waiting to go in.
In my experience, it tends to be two letters at the beginning, followed by a series of numbers and then another letter. It’s a bit like your National Insurance number and if you’ve got a better memory than me, you’ll recognise it on your court paperwork.
You may never have been into a Court before and may not know where to sit, or how it might look. I’ve designed two floor plans (thank you to floorplanner.com) below to hopefully help you to see how it is all set out. You can click on the image to make it larger. I hope. I’m not very good with technology.
The first plan is what, in my experience, many courtrooms look like. The Judge sits “on high”, in that their seats are raised up. Some people might feel a bit intimidated by this, but try to think of it as being designed so that the Judge can see everyone in the room clearly.
The second floor plan is something I’ve also experienced, and it feels a little less formal. The Judge tends to sit on the same level, and all of the Parties sit around a table. The rooms themselves can be the Judge’s Chambers which are the “Office” of the Judge where he or she can hear certain types of cases instead of in “open court” as in Floorplan 1. How commonly this is done, I don’t know, but I only experienced it in my first set of Proceedings in 2012, and only in the earlier Hearings where there were no witnesses to give evidence.
As you can see in Floorplan 1, it is clear where to sit. The solicitors or barristers (also known as “Counsel” – see my Glossary here for more information) sit on the front row, whilst the parents, the Children’s Guardian and the Social Worker(s) sit in the row behind. It may be that there are more “Parties” to Proceedings such as Grandparents, or Aunts/Uncles. They will have their own representation who will sit at the front and everyone else fills the second row with spare seating being used in the public gallery.
In Floorplan 2, it is less obvious, but if you are presented with this set-up, follow your barrister’s instructions on where to sit. However, in my experience, you sit on the opposite side of the table to the Social Worker.
The seats themselves can be nothing more than wooden benches – they are often not the most comfortable of things. That’s why it’s doubly important to wear something you can sit comfortably in for long periods of time.
There will almost always be water in jugs on the tables with plastic cups. It’s a good idea to pour yourself a cup whether you’re thirsty or not, before the Judge comes in. Once things get underway, it’s best to try and sit as still as possible and you might well find the anxiety of the occasion may leave your mouth a little drier than normal.
It is also a very good idea to take a notebook and a pen into court so you can communicate with your barrister. You cannot speak during a hearing unless directly addressed by the Judge and I personally would avoid whispering to your barrister as it can distract the Judge and the other parties. Writing a quick note if you don’t agree with something (or you want to raise a particular point) and passing it to your barrister is a good way to communicate with them.
And so it begins
If your case is heard in open court (as in Floorpan 1), the Clerk will be in the courtroom as you enter, but the Judge will still be in “Chambers”. You are given a few moments to put your bag under the desk, and for the barristers to get their files in order before the Judge will knock on the door from their Chambers to the courtroom.
At this point, you must “rise”, or stand up.
It is a mark of respect to the Judge and must be observed. The judge will then look to the barristers, give a nod, they will bow their heads back and then everyone can sit down.
This might seem a strange thing to do, but it is an etiquette of the court and, to be fair, court is a strange old place to be.
Another tradition within the court is the different names used to address the Judge, depending on their status or the type of court or hearing it is. This can get a little confusing, so I have put together a table below to hopefully make it simple:
Your case will very likely be heard by a District or a Circuit Judge, so check with your barrister which and try to remember the correct way to address them. This is particularly important when you are giving evidence, as it shows respect.
The opening gambit – and how to deal with this
As it is the Local Authority who are making the application to the court, they will speak to the Judge first. This is often a very difficult time for the parents; essentially you have to listen to a barrister list the reasons why they think your child or children should be made subject of a Care Order (or whatever Order is being applied for) and – usually – why they should not live with you anymore.
I can’t dress this one up in any way – it hurts to hear these things. The opening speech from the Local Authority will be quite detailed as they need to very clearly explain their actions. You will inevitably hear things that you don’t agree with, you may hear things you think are lies, or exaggerations and you will probably want to react and respond there and then.
You absolutely must stay calm for the following reasons:
1. Care proceedings are the battle of your life. You have to show strength and resilience that you never knew you had, and you must show it again and again and again. It’s like anything that is emotionally draining – if you do not develop a coping strategy (see below), you will burn out extremely quickly. If you react and respond explosively every time you hear something you don’t agree with, or that hurts, you will burn out extremely quickly. Think marathon, not sprint. The benefit to this is that it will very positively impact upon your parenting because when you learn how to cope in such high-stress, traumatic situations such as these, you also learn not to “sweat the small stuff”.
2. Your actions and reactions are being watched. This element of care proceedings cases really personally frustrates me, because you are under intense, incredible pressure so naturally that’s going to have an impact on you – but you are undoubtedly judged on the way in which you conduct yourself throughout. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. If you react aggressively, or you are emotional to the extreme, it will be used as evidence against you.
These are some of the things I used, and I know of other people using, to have got through this difficult part of the process. One, some or all of these may help you during hearings.
1. Shift your thinking
It is awful to hear bad things about you being said out loud. It is even more awful when they relate to your parenting or your children. It is even more awful when you know you can’t respond, particularly when you’re probably pretty angry with the ones who are saying it.
However. Try to think of it like this… The court is a theatre. The actors are playing to the audience, which is the Judge. There will be some dramatic language used to make their points, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Making an application for a care order, or whatever order they are going for, is taken very seriously by the court, and Local Authorities would be in pretty hot water if they didn’t have a good reason for doing it. So remember that when they are explaining their case, they are also justifying their actions. Don’t forget, there needs to be solid evidence for a Judge to make an Order. His or her head won’t be turned by drama. So, let them have it, let it go. Don’t let what they are saying get to you. Keep this key word in your mind: evidence.
2. Understand your position
It is very natural that, when someone says bad things about you and your parenting, you want to prove them wrong in whatever way you can.
However, try to remember this: the Local Authority have their plan, and they will say things that will back up that plan. But, by the same token; you have your plan, and your barrister will say things to back up your plan. This is something that was taught to me by an incredible lady who attended a meeting with me when the Local Authority were saying some terrible things about me. My whole body was itching to respond, but this lady just kept saying quietly to me: “they have their plan, and we have ours”. I can’t tell you how much it helped. So, try to remember that when you are having to listen to these difficult things.
3. Trust your barrister – and if not, change them
It takes around six years to qualify as a barrister. That’s a hell of a commitment and a very long time spent learning about the law. As such, your barrister is very well placed to not only advise you, but conduct your case to their best of their ability. Trust them to do this especially when you are hearing very difficult things and you want to object to them, or respond in some way. Write your barrister a note and trust that they will know when is best to raise your points.
Most of the barristers that I have met have been absolutely dedicated to their client – my own most certainly was. They’re also not naive; they know the system is flawed and many of them are trying very hard to change that (organisations such as The Transparency Project, for example).
The two key points to remember are:
a) whilst you instruct them, they are there to advise and help you
b) you are the expert in the subject of your own life, but be mindful that they are the experts in the field of law.
If you’re are not confident about your barrister, discuss this with your solicitor. It might be that they can talk to the barrister about why you are unhappy, or it could be that if the trust is gone, you are able to instruct a new one.
4. Some key strategies:
Remember to control your breathing when times get tough. As I said in my previous post, a good way to do this to to inhale through your nose, pause for a second and blow your breath out of your cheeks. This might sound a bit silly and maybe simple, but under pressure such as this, you’d be amazed at what you forget to do. I couldn’t have told you my name at some points of my proceedings.
Water – obviously! Although, you’d be forgiven for wanting something stronger, quite frankly. Court hearings are very draining, the buildings can be hot and stuffy, and it’s important to keep yourself hydrated. It also provides a useful focus in my experience.
Whilst you cannot eat during a hearing (I wouldn’t advise chewing gum either, out of respect), you must try to eat a little before you go in in the morning, or if you are there all day, during breaks. I was very lucky during my proceedings to have people with me who would remind me to eat, and I will be forever grateful as it fuelled me to keep going physically when emotionally I felt I couldn’t.
Clearly not through the proceedings! But proceedings can mean sleepless nights, understandably. If you’re struggling with sleep try one or more of the following:
i) Sleep App
If you have an iPhone I can recommend: “Digipill” and “Relax Melodies: Sleep zen sounds”
If you have an Android I can recommend:”Relax with Andrew Johnson” (a miracle in my opinion) and “iSleep Easy Meditations Free”
All of the above are free and have far more brilliant advice on them I could ever fit in here.
ii) A good bedtime routine. Whether that’s a bath, a book or a warm drink, think how much better children sleep when they’re in a routine and translate that to yourself.
iii) If all else fails, try Kalms night (here), Rescue Remedy Night (here) or Nytol (here)
As I said above, it’s a very good idea to take a notebook and pen into court to communicate with your barrister. However, it can help some people to take notes during the hearing on what is being said. It can provide a focal point if things get heated or intense, or what you are hearing is particularly painful.
These are some hints and tips that may help you through a hearing. Above all else though, keep in mind why you’re there; your children. The desire to be with them, or keep them with you should be at the forefront of your mind at all times. Remember why you’re fighting – for your family. Remember the bigger picture.
Lastly, I wanted to give you a few tips on how to give the best evidence you can. I remember very clearly during the Final Hearing of my Proceedings when I first took the witness stand, the Judge turning to me and telling me that this would be the single most important piece of evidence in the whole trial and to try to relax. Thanks Judge (!).
Here are some tips I picked up along the way:
1. Prepare well
What’s that saying…”fail to prepare and prepare to fail”..? Well, it’s not a bad sentiment in this case. If you know that you are going to be giving evidence, you need to try and take some time out to think about exactly what it is that you want to get across. Think very carefully about what it is that the LA are saying; what is their argument? And then prepare your defence to that argument. When you have spare moments, think again about the key points in your argument and how you would get them across to the Judge.
2. Before you go into Court
Sometimes, when you are under intense amounts of pressure, it can truly affect every part of you, including your memory! So, one thing that I personally found useful was to sit quietly for 20 minutes before I was due to go back into court and give evidence and reread my final statement to court. I asked my barrister and everyone else to leave me alone (in the nicest possible way!) and just sat and absorbed what I had written only a few weeks before. Initially it was like someone else had written it; I couldn’t remember a thing, but the more I read, the more I remembered and the more it made sense. So I would be inclined to do something like this if you can, just to refresh your memory.
3. Ask for advice
Your solicitor and barrister have almost certainly been through a parent giving evidence before and will have a good idea of what to expect. In the weeks leading up to you giving evidence, listen to them, ask as many questions as you can and take notes of their answers. If there are particular areas you’re frightened about, or not confident, focus on these as they’ll certainly come up and you need to be as prepared as possible. Lean on your legal team for this part – that’s what they’re paid for.
4. Honesty is the best policy
You might be worried about aspects of your case and that if you are asked about them and give an honest answer, you might lose your children.
For example, if your child has suffered harm or neglect and you know deep down you could have done more to protect them against that harm – it is always better to say so. In fact, you might be surprised; it is more likely to go in your favour than against you as it shows you’re willing to take responsibility and you’re able to be honest. I know how difficult it is to do this, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes in my experience, and it’s actually quite liberating in the end.
5. Don’t argue and don’t bitch
It is the Local Authority’s (or Children’s Guardian’s) job to put to you difficult questions. Some barristers do that in a careful way and are mindful of not making the process any more unpleasant or upsetting for you…and some barristers just don’t and will ask difficult questions to get a reaction (sorry to my legal followers but we all know it’s true). These barristers will push your buttons and this is your time to rise above it, keep calm and quiet and answer their difficult questions with grace and dignity. Have that as your mindset from the beginning, know that difficult questions will come up and welcome them as an opportunity to show that you are not interested in an argument with anyone, you just want to make your points, that’s all. Try to remember that for the barristers, this is not personal. They are just doing their jobs. So let them do it.
It’s a learning curve, but you could ask your barrister, your solicitor or any of your friends and family to “role-play” with you in the weeks leading up to you giving evidence.
6. Think about the question and stay focused on it
When you are asked a question, think about your answer before you open your mouth. Think about exactly what the barrister is asking you, and only answer that question, clearly and concisely. It is likely that whoever has asked you the question will wait after you have finished your answer and simply look at you. This is a tactic used to try to get you to feel awkward and then start talking more and hopefully trip yourself up! It’s not something that’s exclusive to barristers, employers do it when interviewing, the Police are known to do it in interviews, and politicians are subjected to it daily – so don’t take it personally. Answer the question that has been asked of you and no more. This changes the dynamic and puts the ball firmly back in the other person’s court (excuse the pun…).
For example; if someone asks you how old you are, you would answer “21” (if you’re lucky). If a silence follows, you would probably feel awkward wouldn’t you? You would think that asker was perhaps judging you, and it’s human nature to avoid that by filling the silence. However, if you were to keep quiet, the asker would almost certainly start speaking first as they would themselves feel awkward. So, try to remember that!
- What are the key points of the LA’s case and how can you answer them?
- Reread your final written statement to refresh your memory
- Ask your legal team what questions to expect from the LA/CG and practice different ways to answer them
- When it comes to it:
– be honest and open
– don’t fill silences, use them to your advantage
– speak slowly and concisely
– when you’re asked a question, pause and think about what you’re about to say before you say it
– stay calm and as relaxed as you can
– don’t argue with anyone and don’t give bitchy answers
– keep your children in mind at all times
I hope this post helps those of you attending court, and perhaps giving evidence. These are simple strategies I myself used to great success. I wish you well with them, and I wish you well with “surviving court”.