“How to get the best out of your family lawyer” – Guest Post by Sarah Phillimore

How to get the best out of your family lawyer.

I am a barrister of about 15 years experience, and in the last five years I have concentrated mainly on care proceedings. I represent parents, local authorities and guardians so I hope I have a pretty thorough knowledge about what goes on and how to run a case.

I have also been interested in how the child protection system works – or more accurately, why it so often fails to work despite the best intentions of the majority of those who work within it.

It is thanks to the author of this blog that I was able to turn my interest into something which I hope is of more practical help – I am now one of the site administrators of Child Protection Resource which aims to provide clear and accurate information to everyone who is involved in the child protection system.

Surviving Safeguarding and I first ‘met’ on line in 2013, when she was looking for advice in respect of her own case. We then spoke again at the time of great media interest in the sad case involving the Italian mother who was found to lack capacity to consent to medical treatment. The hospital applied for permission to perform a C-section even if she did not consent. The LA applied for a care order and her child was eventually adopted.

This case, not surprisingly, caused a lot of debate about what was going on in the child protection system. John Hemming (former MP) frequently asserts that ‘targets’ exist which encourage social workers to lie in order to get babies from loving parents to meet these targets. He and various other journalists claimed that this was exactly what had gone on here.

I have never accepted these more extreme theories; if you want to read more about why I don’t, please have a look at this post

But this case did not show the child protection system in a good light. A lot of people were worried about what was being done behind the closed doors of the family courts; a lot of people came on line in various discussion groups to share their horror stories about how they had been mistreated by professionals. A common theme appeared to be the lack of effective communication from professionals and parents’ consequent lack of trust.

Surviving Safeguarding makes the compelling point that when she was first involved in care proceedings and seeking advice, it was difficult to find something other than suggestions that she simply refuse to co-operate – or even that she should leave the country.

Luckily, what she did find was the excellent post from suesspiciousminds in 2012 “What should you do if social services steal your children”, – the first and still the best example of straight talking from a professional. Lucy Reed has also written a helpful guest post for the CPR site entitled “Who should I trust?”

What makes this approach so useful is that these lawyers understand the distinction between giving out information and communicating. Communication means ‘getting through’. It happens when information is both received and understood. It’s the difference between giving someone a leaflet about drug rehabilitation, which might go straight in the bin, and sitting down and explaining why it would help this particular person at this particular time, in language that the person can understand.

I think it really is this simple. How do you get the best out of your lawyer? How do I get the best out of you? We communicate. We talk to one another – not at one another. We make genuine efforts to understand where the other is coming from.

A tragic and dangerous gulf is widening between those who are subject to a child protection investigation and those who carry it out. By the time parents get to me in the court proceedings they are often bogged down in fear and distrust; that the social worker wants to steal their child for a bonus, that I am nothing but a ‘legal aid loser’ in the LA’s pockets.

But here’s the problem. I can’t fight your case on my own. My job is to be the person who understands and applies the relevant law to the facts of your particular case. The law and the facts must work together. I know the law, you know the facts.

If I can’t communicate to you what the law means and the law requires, I am not doing my job. But if you can’t tell me what you understand to be the facts of your case, then I can’t do my job.

I understand that it is very hard to listen to people being critical of your parenting. This hits right where it hurts. I understand the temptation not to want to engage with this, but to turn instead to a narrative that you are simply a victim of a corrupt system.

But if you come to me with that as your ‘fact’ then there is nothing I can do to help you. This is not because I am stupid or afraid to upset the LA. It is because you are effectively saying you will not engage with the process; you will not provide any other narrative to try to challenge the LA case against you.

Of course, SW make mistakes. Of course investigations can be sloppy and facts get misinterpreted or twisted. That I can do something with. Picking apart those kinds of cases is what I enjoy. But I cannot do anything with a simple assertion that the whole system is corrupt and the social worker lies.

In no particular order, here are my Top Tips on how to get the best out of your lawyer. You will see that what underpins them all is the need for good communication.

Make sure your solicitor can get hold of you
Answer your phone calls, check your messages, read and respond to letters.

Turn up to appointments with your solicitor
Your solicitor needs to talk to you. You now have a very short window of time to prepare your response to the LA evidence, about two weeks after proceedings are issued. You need to make your case now, it’s too late to make it at the final hearing, once the SW and guardian’s minds are made up.

If you can’t stay in touch or make appointments, explain why
If you are having trouble keeping in touch for whatever reason – you are worried about telling your employer what’s going on and can’t leave work, your phone is broken and you can’t afford a new one – tell your solicitor. There may be something they can do to help. But don’t leave them in the dark. Don’t give them the impression you aren’t bothered. It’s hard to fight a case for someone when you think they don’t care.

If you don’t understand or agree with what your lawyer is saying – tell them
Get them to repeat themselves until you do understand, even if you still don’t agree.

If you don’t like/trust/respect your lawyer – get rid of them
Some lawyers are better than others. Some people with the best will in the world, you won’t get on with and its not your fault or their fault, it just is. If you feel that your lawyer is not someone you can work with, you need to find someone else.
But if you sack your lawyer, be honest with yourself about why – a good lawyer will tell you thngs you may not want to hear. If you are both communicating openly and honestly with each other, these difficult conversations can be had without harming the professional relationship. If you sack your lawyer for just giving you some hard advice, this is not in your best interests. And if you do go down this road, you need to do it well in advance of any final hearing. You can’t reasonably expect another lawyer to take your case with only a few weeks to go.

I hope that makes sense and I hope it helps some people to get the best out of their lawyer. There is a lot wrong with the system, I know and accept this. But I don’t accept it exists to steal children from loving parents for no reason. You may not like the reasons, the reasons given may have been exaggerated or misunderstood – but they are THERE. If you don’t engage with them, the system will simply roll on and roll over you. Don’t let that happen to you.

Sarah Phillimore