Lived Experience and Professional Expertise as a Lawyer in the Court of Protection

By Kirsty Stuart – 21st July, 2020

(Tweets from 9th July 2020)

When people think about what a lawyer is, I think the typical view is of someone who wears a suit, goes to court and earns a lot of money, or at least that is what my clients have told me.

But as solicitors we are shaped not just by our professional training but also by our life experiences.  

A proportion of my clients have a form of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. My mum was diagnosed in February 2019 with a rare kind of young onset dementia called Posterior Cortical Atrophy. This came as a bit of a shock at the time as she was only 59. As solicitors receiving paperwork for new clients we get “care needs assessments” – and my mum’s name is now on that paperwork that drops through my door. I understand from seeing care homes and placements in my local area the options available and this adds a different slant to these clients. I can truly empathise with the perspective of family members whom I support in my job and I feel their worries about “wandering”, of change, and in the certainty of uncertainty. It also means that I am aware of what services are available, of the ways in which to speak to those individuals and what the family members concerns will be.

I was interested in going in to law whilst doing a degree in medicine, when I had a realisation that I did not want to become a doctor but still wanted a career where I could help improve the lives of others. I also knew I wanted a good life-long career. My interest for medicine though never left, and this is why I pursued mental health law as a paralegal and now as a qualified solicitor, working in the field of public law and human rights.

My caseload mainly consists of those who may lack capacity to make decisions for themselves: whether this be, for example, to decide on where they live, who they have contact with, or whether they can decide on medical treatment.

Some of my clients have communication difficulties and again my personal and family experience is helpful.  I have been blessed with two children. They were both born prematurely and received hospital treatment in the special care baby unit for several weeks after birth. My older child is almost 6 and has specific diagnoses which we still have to manage due to her prematurity, and my son who is almost 3 is more complex. He has seen most specialities at our incredible Children’s Hospital as well as the genetics team at the Centre for Life. He continues to require additional support from several medical professionals and looking after a child with additional needs is like having a separate job. Due to his speech difficulties, I learnt Makaton, which is a unique language programme that uses signs, symbols and speech to enable people to communicate.  With Makaton, signs are used with speech, in spoken word order. Having a child like mine means that when I have clients who have rare genetic conditions or learning disabilities and/or who are autistic, or those who have communication difficulties, I can use that to enhance the relationship, and relate to how those parents feel. I understand the struggles, the worry, the hospital admissions, and having to liaise with several professionals to obtain the right levels of support for your child and find the answers you need. I have also found it helpful to use my Makaton, albeit that I am no expert, to enhance the ability of some clients to communicate effectively with great results.

My personal experiences have had a big impact on my work and the way in which I approach cases. I am acutely aware of the ways loved ones will be feeling and know to approach their anger not as a personal attack but more a frustration at the battle they have fought for years and their misunderstanding of my role – meaning they think that I am just about to ‘breakout’ their loved one and set them free on their own, back into a dark place. That is absolutely not my role and it is about listening and really trying to consider the weight individuals place on things, even if I may not make the same decisions myself.

I think it is so important to share a little piece of yourself in the work you do. I think the views have always been not to do this, not to show a personal side but I have found a real benefit in the opposite. That is not to say that I do it for all clients, all of the time. I do not speak to my clients with dementia about my mum’s dementia. I also had a very emotional serious medical treatment case relating to an unborn baby, at the same time as myself being pregnant. I did not tell the lady that I was pregnant or of my previous child’s prematurity. There is definitely a balance to be struck and I let it happen naturally, if it feels right to do so, and sometimes a genuine ‘ I can really relate to that,’ is enough to give that feeling.

I am lucky in many senses in my work life, mainly in finding Irwin Mitchell solicitors where I currently work. Not only have they been genuinely supportive of my situation, always being understanding and allowing me to take time off and work flexibly, they are supportive of individuals carving out their career aspirations, of doing specific cases of interest and nurturing that interest in a furthering way. I wish that more lawyers online were honest and saw the positive impact of sharing a piece of you does rather than being scared of social media. When your true vocation is to be a lawyer, it sits beside your other roles and just becomes part of your day and overall self.

Being a lawyer in this field and covering cases within the Court of Protection can be difficult and emotive, particularly with those on, for example, ventilation or at end of life – and it draws on all personal parts of your own life to help clients and ensure that it is person centred. A lot of lawyers in this field are parents, carers and have those experiences to draw on alongside their training and expertise. We are not faceless, and any one of us could become involved as the subject of, or family member to a person subject to Court of Protection proceedings.

Kirsty Stuart is a public law and human rights solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, mother to Islay and Hugo, and parent ambassador/fundraiser or @tinylivestrust.  She tweets @ @MrsArcticride

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