The family court in lockdown

Here’s a very quick, diary style post about my day spent in court 17 at Bristol’s Civil Justice Centre on 28 May 2020, as the family justice system grapples with the practical, moral and emotional implications of hearing family cases during the coronavirus pandemic.

9am. Arrive at the court and go through security. Nobody else is waiting to go in, or I’d have had to queue – no more than one person at a time may now step inside the glass doors  to have their belongings checked and go through the body scanner.

The security manager tells me that people entering the court will have to take out all the contents of their bags and pockets and put them in one or more of the five red trays laid out on the table. Then they will step back as security checks the items.

Once that’s done, they may step through the scanner. I point to the scanning wand used for when your belt goes beep. What will happen about that, I ask? You’ll have to come within two metres to scan people. The security manager nods. They’ll have to try to scan people as little as possible, he says. How long does he reckon security checks will take per person, I ask. About three to four minutes, he tells me.

There is now a one way system for the lobby, which you have to walk through to get to the lift. Only one of the two lifts is working. This is a modern court centre on four floors; lifts are essential. But only one person may travel at a time in the single operational lift. And stickers on the floor show that only a maximum six people will be allowed to queue for the lift after getting through security. Meanwhile, court users will be queueing outside to get into the building. Lucky it’s nice weather at the moment. In winter on a busy court day, if you’re elderly, or infirm, or if you have a baby in a buggy, that wait could be less than fun. There’s no shelter.

Back inside, as the lobby is deserted I march straight to the lift and head up to the first floor to check in with the ushers. Colin the head usher is sitting behind the main welcome desk, socially distanced from the milling public (none of whom are in today) by yellow and black incident tape that’s been installed on poles at just below waist level.

Colin takes me to a court that has been newly set up to operate on a socially distanced basis. He’s done two per floor so far.

In this small court, he’s removed chairs so there are now just two chairs per long bench, rather than the usual six. The ‘witness stand’ is a chair in the corner of the room, at the end where the judge sits. Colin does all his measurements with a two metre stick, and has spent days if not weeks going around the entire civil justice centre making sure that no-one will sit or move closer than two metres to another individual.

The biggest court here, which would typically be be employed in long-running, highly contested cases with large numbers of parties (and their accompanying silks, juniors, solicitors, note-takers, social workers and expert witnesses) has a total capacity of 85. But it can now accommodate only 15 people, along with the judge and a clerk. Almost all the chairs in here have been removed,  stacked and taped off at the back. How will these big cases be heard now, I wonder.

Back in the main waiting area, and I see that only one person can go into the loo at a time. Colin has niftily taped labels on the doors which you’re meant to turn around so it says Engaged when you enter. I am here all day, and keep forgetting to turn it back to Vacant on the three occasions I come out. Sorry Colin.

I glance up the staircases that lead up to the next floors. No way can two people pass by each other while keeping two metres apart. Even one metre is doubtful. That one working lift is going to be busy.

Remote hearings in lockdown

9.45am – Designated family judge Stephen Wildblood is sitting in court 17. This court hasn’t been taped out so it’s socially distanced, but it’s just him and me in today, so it’s easy to observe the rules. Judge Wildblood puts a spray bottle Dettol in front of me, together with a wad of kitchen roll, so I can clean my desk top.

I sit in for three cases. In this blog, I’ll describe the first one  (as it’s not long till teatime and the kids want barbequed burgers) and the other two later.

This case is an application for an interim care order. This means the local authority – Bristol City Council – is asking judge Wildblood to agree that the Police Protection Order***  under which a young child was removed in emergency circumstances from the care of her mother (PPOs last three days, and this one is about to expire) can be replaced with an order that – without prejudice to any eventual outcome – means the local authority retain the care of the girl, who is now in foster care.

*** Note added at 7.45am the morning after I posted this blog: It has now been pointed out to me by a social worker, a law lecturer, a barrister and a solicitor that there is no such thing as a Police Protection Order. Police can remove children with no notice under police protection powers, but there is no judicial oversight of this action, which is why the power only lasts for 72 hours before the removal has to be examined by judge. At that point, the judge can either make an order to keep the child in care, or refuse, at which point the child must immediately be returned. In my defence, the term PPO was used in the hearing, so I thought it was correct, but actually, if I’d thought about it a few seconds longer, I’d have worked out that there is no order at that point because no judge. With her permission, I quote the solicitor Emily Boardman’s message to me: it said “The use of PPO is my absolute bugbear though – professionals use it sloppily to indicate to parents it is more powerful than just a police decision – so they elevate it to an ‘order’ when it is not.” Something to cogitate on.

10am – The hearing starts. The judge takes everyone carefully through the points that there must be no recording or its a criminal offence, that everyone must be in a private space and alone, that it’s a confidential hearing, and that everyone must be able to hear throughout, and to alert him if they cannot.

Before I’m allowed to join the meeting, and the judge states to all on the Zoom call that I am in court, physically in front of him, and that I am entitled to be there. (Everyone has been informed in advance I wished to attend). He carefully checks that nobody wants to object to my presence. Nobody does, but the mother’s barrister says that her agreement is contingent on my video being turned off. It seems entirely reasonable that a mother  who is anticipating the enforced loss of her child does not have to engage with a journalist’s face on a computer screen if she doesn’t want to, so that is quickly agreed. (In fact, I wonder if that might be a really good idea for future hearings? I’d be interested to know if people think there are advantages to a journalist being visible in a remote hearing? I think it is potentially distracting for parties, and unnecessary.)

I enter the Zoom, and it’s realised that I’m on a log in that shows my partner’s name. He installed it on my laptop, I realise with a sigh. Luckily, this is dealt with calmly by the judge, who spares my blushes. He is also Zoom savvy enough to be able to change the name that shows against my blank postage stamp presence. Note – make sure you are set up as yourself on whatever virtual platform you enter remote hearings on: as a journalist, you don’t want to create problems.

It emerges immediately that this has been a very heavy week for Bristol child protection social workers. Workloads are stretched.

At some point the mother’s connection drops out. This is realised by Judge Wildblood after the Local Authority, Children’s Guardian and mother’s barrister have made their points.

This is clearly not good. The judge tries to log the mother back in. It doesn’t work. The local authority barrister tries. It doesn’t work. The judge says he will try again using a different method. Again, no contact can be made.

I think of that woman, all by herself, at home in lockdown, unable to hear at least some of what has gone on in court relating to a distressing decision about her child. Whatever the circumstances that led to this hearing, she will be anxious for her daughter. And she will not know how she is going to get back into the hearing.

At this point – again, very calmly; the whole hearing is very measured – the judge asks the mother’s barrister if she can phone her to ask her to log back in. She has her number, the barrister says, but the mother is using her device to attend the hearing.

She calls her and the mother is logged back in.

The judge then checks if the mother has heard what her own barrister had said. “No,” is the answer.

“Did you hear what the Guardian’s barrister said?”

“No,” she says. She is evidently distressed.

The judge asks the Guardian’s barrister and the mother’s barrister to repeat what they have said. They do so, fully.

This has all added ten minutes to the hearing.

Soon after there is a 10 minute break for the advocates to meet and discuss a few points. The recording is stopped, and the judge and I both exit the courtroom to ensure there is no technical glitch that means we can hear what people are saying.

Outside the court,  judge Wildblood tells me that when cases resume in front of him with people attending in person, he will insist that there is break every hour for all those in the hearing to wash their hands. So we now take the opportunity to go and wash our hands. How long this will take if people in a ‘normal’ sized hearing go out two by two for handwashing, (only one person per toilet, remember)? About 25 minutes, he reckons. Hearing time will be reduced, he assesses, from 5.5 hours per day to about 4 hours per day. That’s drop in capacity of just over a quarter.

The hearing resumes.

For the first time, the mother is now seen clearly, as she moves from silhouette in front of a window to another part of the room. She is managing to cope with the hearing, but is evidently extremely upset. It strikes me again how very difficult it must be for any parent faced with losing the care of their child not to have the reassurance of sitting next to their solicitor who can take them, minute by minute, through what is happening, and what is to come next. I’m sure those conversations still do happen by phone, afterwards. But at a human level, it is hard to watch anyone suffer in this way, alone, with no opportunity for human contact.

The judge says he will make the order asked for. He emphasises to the mother that this is without prejudice to any eventual outcome, and also emphasises that he is sure that opportunities for contact between her and her child (which must now be done remotely) will be facilitated by the social workers.

About 15 minutes in, the Guardian’s barrister notices that the recording has not been restarted. That means the judge now has to recap everything that has been said. The recording is restarted, and he patiently does so. There is only one way to approach remote hearings, I realise – with a determination to exert a Buddhist sense of calm.

As the hearing concludes, the judge checks methodically if anyone has anything to add. At the end, he asks me.

I ask to be able report the figure cited at the start of the hearing for the high number of referrals made to the council’s child protection team on a particular day this week.

The judge has no issue with this – it has no relation to this actual case –  but asks the social worker if she would like to refer this request up within the council. She nods, and says she will do this, but also says she has “no issue with confirming it has been extremely busy this week for Bristol Children’s Services.”

Everyone is thanked. The recording is stopped. I leave the Zoom call.

….. right, I need to go and do bedtime now. I’ll do another blog about hearing two and three – much shorter ones – later.

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