Have you been to the perfect court? Family law barrister at 42 Bedford Row Jeremy Hall takes you there.
I want you to take my hand and come with me, you jaded family hack. Come on! Before the memory goes….
Where are we going? We are walking into a court building, which actually resembles a court building. It is not a crowded office block, dressed up in cheap court clothes. It has large courtrooms which smell of wood, a spacious WRVS coffee stall, and enough interview rooms for those who happen to arrive after 9.01am.
To our surprise we are allowed straight in. Nobody asks us to empty our pockets into a plastic fruit bowl. There is no pointless rummaging in our wheelie-cases, nor the rigmarole of inverting our loose change, keys and other people’s dandruff back into our upturned hands. The aloof eastern european security team have been replaced by a janitor – a kindly elderly gentleman who concerns himself with replacing lightbulbs, discussing test cricket, and being over-familiar with the staff in the list office.
We walk to the robing room. Here we find loud people wearing pin-striped suits and smoking. They sit around languidly, telling hilarious stories with perfect timing. They are called ‘criminal practitioners’. They seem happy, and wear clothes and shoes without holes in. Some of them can afford cars.
We fish out the brief from our bag, which arrived several days ago wrapped up in ribbon. It does not look like the product of a sweary fight with our home printer in the small hours of the morning. We wander towards the waiting area outside court 1. En route, we pass the court office. Although it is only 9.25am, we can’t help noticing that it is open, and there seems to be a human behind the front counter helping a member of the public.
Outside court we find our client, but we wonder who the person in smart clothes is sitting next to her. Somewhat miffed, our instructing solicitor identifies herself and provides us with a succinct and helpful update on the developments in the case. We discuss the issues, and at natural pauses in the discussion, our instructing solicitor nods sagely at the client and pretends to agree with the points we are making.
Our opponent identifies himself. He too is a family practitioner who undertakes publicly funded work, but exhibits no obvious mental health difficulties or stress-related illness. We get the impression that he has spent most of the previous night asleep in a bed. When we invite him to exchange position statements, case summaries, and draft orders, he looks quizzically at us and wonders what on earth we are talking about.
An usher approaches, wearing a gown. For time-worn reasons, we assume that she bears a series of fully justified grudges against the legal profession and is to be avoided at all costs, but it slowly dawns on us that her smile is genuine and seems to want to help. We are the only case in the list, but we are told that the judge is in no hurry to get us on; she is snaffling a full English with a B&H for afters in the judges’ canteen.
In negotiations outside court the advocates listen politely to each other and the issues are narrowed, but there is no overall settlement. The usher asks us whether we might come into court now? In we file.
The judge arrives. We don’t know this, but she has a small dog under her feet. She smiles benevolently at us, and she too lends us the impression that she has spent most of the night asleep. We open the case. The judge appears genuinely interested in the factual background, having read the trial bundle, but nonetheless invites us to take her to the important bits in it and explain what we are asking for and why. This process is called ‘advocacy’. Witnesses are called, but because we have no idea how quickly they may speak, nor what they might say in response to our cross-examination, the court has not insisted that we stick to the times on the witness template. During final submissions, it occurs to us that the judge is still listening. She seems keen to follow our argument. Yesterday she was hearing a civil dispute about a garden boundary. Next week she will be sitting in the crown court.
We wonder where our normal tribunal has gone to? – the ill-tempered one with an ashen face, lifeless eyes, and hunched shoulders. The one submerged in a maelstrom of IRHs and CMHs, who wades through turgid and repetitive case summaries and position statements morning noon and night, and who presides over a monstrous production line of public law children applications until his or her early retirement through ill-health.
It is 4.30pm. The judge has announced her decision and given a short judgment explaining her reasons. The court clerk, who has remained in court throughout the hearing, says that he will type out the order and post it to our instructing solicitor. As there were only three issues being determined by the court, the order itself will contain only three paragraphs. In future, ordinary people (such as our client) will be able to read the order and understand in an instant what has been decided today, without (a) biting their wrist and drawing blood and/or (b) enlisting the de-coding expertise of GCHQ.
So much for life 20 years ago. Was it better then? For us hacks it probably was, but for the people that matter – the children, the litigants, and others affected by the endemic delay in the system of family justice – probably not.
Its time for me to lead us back into our present world – the one where judges must certify our existence on a stamped document before the Legal Aid Agency believe that we bothered going to court, and where our days are spent with other short-tempered and over-wrought family lawyers, lurching from one case management crisis to the next.
See you there!