After well over three years, my sixth – and hopefully final – set of Proceedings in the Family Court came to an end last week. There were times over the last three years I thought it would never be over, times I thought I simply wouldn’t survive. But I did, and I have, and I hope I can help other parents to survive, too.
As I walked into Court last week, I was reminded of how it felt to attend my first Hearing, that I didn’t know what to expect, where to sit, when to speak, why I wasn’t allowed to respond when the Local Authority said upsetting things about me to the Judge. It was like an alien world where everybody spoke another language and knew the etiquette; I was a stranger in a foreign land.
As such, I wanted to write a “Guide To Surviving Court” to try and give some practical advice to parents who are facing Proceedings and perhaps feeling that same rising panic in their throats as I once felt. I’m splitting this into two parts; the first dealing with the practical issues of attending Court, the second dealing with what actually goes on in front of a Judge. I hope that this may help parents to feel a little less afraid, a little less confused and bewildered, and a little less alone.
Part One – How to Survive Court
- Getting the right advice
The first, and possibly most valuable piece of advice I can give parents is to find a good,reputable legal representative. The first starting point I would use would be The Law Society’s “Find a Solicitor” page here – scroll down to Family and relationships in the “Legal Issue” box, input your postcode and up should pop a list of local solicitors. Look for the icon to the right which shows that the solicitor is accredited by the Law Society Children’s Accreditation Scheme. If you struggle with the internet you can also ring the Law Society on 020 7320 5650.
I would always advise you to research your solicitor as much as you can; recommendations, word of mouth and a Google search all help, but most solicitors will be prepared to meet with you for around 30 minutes either face to face, over the telephone, or by email. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to get the right advice. In my own case, after sacking my first legal team, I went out of the area and chose a national firm specialising in Care Proceedings. This turned out to be a very wise move and I’m not sure I would have had the outcome I did otherwise.
NB Often you are represented at Hearings by a barrister and you may not have ever met this person as you will ordinarily deal day-to-day with your solicitor. This can mean that when it comes to the day of the Hearing, you’re not sure who to look for.
The first thing to do in this instance is ask your solicitor to describe the barrister, in advance of the Hearing. If, for whatever reason, your solicitor is unfamiliar with this barrister, there are two options here:
1. Google the name of your barrister as often Chambers ensure up-to-date images of their staff are kept in the public domain. Input (for example) ‘John Smith Barrister Liverpool’, and click on images.
2. Approach the Court Clerks and ask if they know who this person is. As barristers are in and out of Court daily, it is likely someone will be able to point them out.
- Plan your journey
Once you’ve found your solicitor, it’s time to prepare for Court. It’s very possible that you’ve never set foot inside a Court building before, you might not even be sure where your Court is. A good place to start is here at the Court and Tribunal Finder. You enter your postcode and your nearest Court(s) are listed.
Once you’ve found your Court, it’s a good idea to plan, in advance, how to get there. If you don’t drive you can try this link – this is Traveline and it’s a journey planner for the UK.You simply input your postcode, the postcode of where you want to travel and the time and date and a complete journey from door-to-door is displayed for you.
- What to wear
I’m sure no one needs to be reminded that Court is serious business. Even though it is probable you won’t actually speak to the Judge, he or she will certainly be aware of your presence, so it’s very important to make a good impression. It also helps you mentally, in my experience – if you’re dressed smartly, you hold yourself differently. It might be a small thing, but every little helps.
Men: You don’t need a three-piece suit! Just some smart trousers or chinos, a smart shirt and shoes (not trainers) will help you to hold yourself with confidence.
Women: Dress pants, or a skirt with a smart top work well. Remember to keep necklines high and hemlines low!
It’s very important that you’re comfortable, too. You’re likely to be there for quite some time, so wear something that isn’t going to irritate you. I can’t wear heels myself – I can’t walk in them at all – so whilst I was always very smartly dressed for Court, I would wear flat shoes. It sounds daft, but you need to be completely focused on what’s going on – not that waistband digging in, or your feet bunched into tight shoes. Courts seem often to have their own climate – either freezing or boiling! – so I’d advise you wear layers.
Things to take with you
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have good support around you during the child protection process. Whether you are part of a couple, or a single mum or dad; you will need a strong network of support and this is extremely important when you attend Court.
Unless you are a “Party to Proceedings” (see my Glossary here), you will not be allowed to enter the Courtroom itself, but just having someone with you in the waiting area will help so much. There is an awful lot of ‘waiting around’ during these Hearings; sometimes emergency matters come up that the Judge must deal with first, and it is quite normal for your case to be listed at the same time as two or three others. I’ll be honest with you – the waiting is the worst part.
When considering who could attend with you, think about what you will need. In my experience, you need someone with you who is level-headed, quiet and calm. If you think your mum will end up more stressed than you – leave her at home! What you really need is someone just there to listen, without judgement, and to hold your hand and carry your pain.
Independent advocacy services are – unfortunately – very very rare for this type of situation, but charities such as Families In Care (based in the North-East) and the Family Rights Group (based in London) work immensely hard to support parents faced with the child protection process.
- Relevant paperwork
Whilst this doesn’t mean that you need to take every document you’ve ever received from the Local Authority, it is a good idea to take anything you think might help your barrister or solicitor. So, if there has been a recent review meeting, or care-team meeting and you have any reports or minutes, do take them along.
It’s a very good idea to purchase a lever-arch file for this purpose. Not only does it keep everything in one place so you can easily find important information, but it also helps you to feel like you’re doing something in the darker days.
- The basics
As I already mentioned, there is an awful lot of waiting around when you attend Court. For example, at one of my recent Hearings, I arrived at 9.15am, and didn’t leave until 1.30pm – and that’s reasonably normal. The waiting can be very difficult, so I would advise you take some things with you to pass the time. A magazine, a book (or a Kindle), a puzzle book – anything that’s quiet and will focus your mind.
I would definitely advise you take a bottle of water with you, or a cool drink of some sort. Just bear in mind that glass bottles are likely to be taken by security staff as they can’t be taken into the Courtroom.
Some Courts have a small cafe, others just a tea machine – either way make sure you have some change to get yourself a cuppa. It’s amazing how much a hot cup of tea made me feel better during my Proceedings!
I would also advise you take a snack, some fruit, or nuts, a cereal bar, or some chocolate – Court is draining and you need to keep your energy up. Just remember not to eat in the Courtroom itself!
Other things I would always have with me would be tissues, mints, a pen and some paper, some paracetamol and Bach’s Rescue Remedy (click here for more information) which helped me to stay calm. I also always took a small picture of my children with me to remind me to stay strong.
What to expect
These are a few things I wished I’d known ahead of my first few Hearings so I could prepare myself mentally for them:
- Security check
As you enter the Court building itself, you will need to pass through a security scanner and then a security guard will use a manual scanner too. This can feel a bit uncomfortable but it’s essential to keep everybody safe, and you’ll see yourself that solicitors and barristers have to be scanned, too.
It’s very likely that your bag will be searched as you pass through the security scanner – again everyone has to go through this. If you have anything glass in your bag, like a perfume bottle, it’s likely it will be confiscated until you’re ready to leave Court. You’ll be given a receipt for it though and can pick it up on your way out. Anything that could be potentially used as a weapon will also be taken, and in my experience things like chargers are often taken.
However, if there’s something you have with you you really need, explain this to the security guard who will use their discretion. For example, I used to have to take my hospital-grade breastpump to Court, along with ice packs and a cool bag – I got a few raised eyebrows the first time I took them in, but the security staff allowed me to take them in with me. It actually became a running joke after that!
The waiting area in Court is particularly bizarre. There is normally a main waiting area, and then lots of little rooms where barristers and solicitors take their clients ahead of Hearings. In my experience, it is somewhat of a coup to get one of the little rooms – and if you get one, you hold onto it!
If you are in the main waiting area, you will likely hear and see a lot of human emotion. Court is a stressful business – people’s lives are being decided, so don’t be surprised to see people upset. Unfortunately, it is likely you will also hear snippets of conversation from other people cases. This is always uncomfortable, but sometimes can’t be helped.
Try to remember that everyone there is nervous – sometimes even the lawyers! Just keep your head together and focus on your own case and why you’re there. Eyes on the prize, as someone once said to me.
- A last (and very important!) note
One of the things I found extremely hard to deal with was when the “Advocates” (which will likely be your barrister or solicitor, the Local Authority’s barrister, the Social Worker, the Children’s Guardian and their barrister) all disappeared off into one of the little rooms together for Pre-Hearing discussions. Very often these people work together every day and so know each other quite well – very often they will therefore have a joke and a chatter before getting down to work. In any sort of work environment this is quite normal, but for a parent, this is incredibly difficult to see. Very often, you are left alone outside of the room, knowing that the Advocates are discussing your child and your life, and there’s nothing you can do.
I know of parents where this has been too much, and they have burst into the room, or caused a fuss demanding to be allowed to sit in and know what is being said. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to keep your cool during times like these as any behaviour like that will go against you. You must try and stay calm and keep your head “in the game”.- Breathing. Focus on your breathing. In through your nose, pause, out through your mouth. Concentrate on the rhythm of your breath and with each breath allow yourself to relax.
– Keep busy. If you have someone with you for support, talk to them. If you’re on your own, read your magazine/book, or find something on your phone to keep you occupied – I used to play solitaire over and over (I was very bad at it) as it was mind-numbing.
– If it gets too much, get up and walk. Stretch your legs, walk from one end of the waiting area to the next. Count how many steps it takes you.
Another trick is to count back from 100 in sevens. I’m not quite sure how that helps, but I used it and it worked for me. Start with 100, minus seven to get 93, and then minus another seven and so on.
Another trick is to make words from a word you spot. So, say you spot the word “Building”, see what words you can make from it (bud, lid, nil etc)
If you smoke, go and have one. Or five, go and have five. I’m not a smoker (I actually quit during my newborn’s Proceedings believe it or not!), and I obviously don’t normally advocate smoking, but this is not a normal situation. Do whatever you have to do to get you through, within reason. If that’s five Malboro in a row, so be it.
Keep calm, and remember why you’re there. Keep your children in mind all of the time. You can do this, you will get through this. This too will pass.
I hope this helps some parents to prepare in their own way for Court. Part Two of this Post will deal with what to expect in front of the Judge, and how best to get through an actual Hearing, including some advice on how to give evidence.