Difficulty Accessing the Court of Protection as Observers

Evie Robson and Claire Martin, 8th April 2021

Editorial Note: Problems with accessing the Court of Protection – especially (but not only) in the regional hubs – pose an ongoing challenge for public observers. “Inadvertent” as well as “deliberate” exclusion of observers is also discussed in Celia Kitzinger’s blog post here. We welcome suggestions as to how these problems of access can be addressed.

We set aside the morning of 8th April  in the hope of attending a Court of Protection hearing , but despite our best efforts, this turned out not to be possible. This experience was frustrating – and it wasn’t a one-off.  We’ve encountered similar difficulties on other occasions, so we’re writing this short piece simply as an illustration of what ‘transparency’ can be like from the perspective of the would-be observer.

Claire is a Clinical Psychologist working in older people’s mental health services in Gateshead, and Evie is a 6th form student hoping to study law at university. Between us, we have attended several Court of Protection remote hearings during the pandemic, and have contributed blogs to OJCP (e.g. here and here). We strongly support open justice and the public being involved in how justice is delivered in the UK, both to offer scrutiny to the court system and also to learn about the intricacies of how law is applied.

We both applied the night before (7th April 2021) to attend COP 13625844 TS (via MS Teams) before District Judge Taylor at 10am on 8th April 2021, which was estimated at 90 minutes. This hearing was at Bristol. At 9.39am on the morning of the hearing we received this reply from the judge (via the administrator) at the South West regional hub: 

Since it was now 9.39am, we decided to apply for District Judge Carter, sitting at Nottingham Family Court, so we emailed the Midlands regional hub in Birmingham. The case to which we requested access was COP 13719048, listed for 10am.  We apologised for the late request, explaining that access to another hearing at 10am had been declined. We received the automatic email reply, so we knew we had emailed correctly. 

At 09.57am Claire telephoned the Midlands hub in Birmingham. The administrator was very helpful and said that the judge would need to decide about access and would get back to us. We did not hear anything by 10.15am so we emailed the Midlands hub again to request access to COP 13673339 with District Judge Rogers in Nottingham, listed for 10.30am, again apologising for the late request. We heard nothing back. 

At 10.32, realising that we had probably not been granted access to DJ Rogers’ hearing, we got back to the Midlands hub asking this time for access to COP 13723577 before District Judge Carter in Nottingham at 11am. At 10.53, having heard nothing, Claire telephoned the Court to confirm receipt of the requests. The same court administrator answered and was again helpful but explained that she could do nothing more than email the judge with requests. She said that DJ Carter had three, back-to-back hearings that morning which might explain why no response had been possible, as ‘there is no break for her between hearings’. She didn’t know why District Judge Rogers had not replied.

As we write this, it is 12.02pm and Claire has had no response to the fifth request of the day (which had been made at 10.15am) – to observe COP 13678165, DJ Carter’s final listed hearing at 12noon in Nottingham. 

We understand that the court system is under considerable strain, and managing requests to observe on the day is time-consuming and can be challenging both for administrators and for judges.

It’s a tricky dynamic – open justice is a principle of the court system, yet in asking for access it can feel that you are being unreasonable, or causing hassle or that you are in the way. Saying that the Courts are open, and actually being open, can be two different things. 

If we could apply earlier to attend, we would, but hearings are generally not listed until the night before. Our experience has been that requests to attend Tier 3 hearings (in the Royal Courts of Justice list) are (mostly) responded to reliably, and more speedily, and it is easier to access these hearings. 

When setting aside some time to attend a hearing, anticipating some chance of success is important, otherwise the justice system is not really ‘open’. We will look out for Tier 3 hearings next time – but this does mean that hearings in the regional hubs are effectively ‘closed’ to public scrutiny.

Evie Robson is a Year 12 student studying English Literature, French, Maths and Further Maths at Whitley Bay High School.She has just set up a new Twitter account and would love followers to network with @evie275

Claire Martin is Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Older People’s Clinical Psychology Department, Gateshead. She has published several blog posts for the Project about hearings she’s observed (e.g. here and here). She tweets @DocCMartin

Photo by Kay Fisher on Unsplash

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