A junior doctor watches his first hearing

By Sam Elcock, 14th June 2021

I was inspired to dial in to a Court of Protection hearing after hearing Celia Kitzinger speak about the Open Justice Court of Protection Project at a presentation where I work.

I’m a junior doctor working in Birmingham and have yet to have any involvement with patients or cases that have gone to the Court of Protection. I was however aware of the concept of complex cases where there may be a dispute about a patient’s best interests which end up in a court of law. 

The idea of being able to watch a hearing remotely via MS Teams made things much easier for me, as with a busy work schedule it’s quite hard to plan attendance at short notice.

On a rare day off work with no other plans, I saw a tweet from @OpenJusticeCoP about a hearing before Mr Justice Hayden, who I knew had presided over the Alfie Evans case as a High Court judge.

It was Case No. 13748686 Re: B before Judge Hayden at 11.30am on 27th May 2021.

I emailed the courts that morning and very quickly received a link to the MS Teams meeting, along with a last-minute change of timing for the case – it had been listed for 11.30am but we were told it would actually now happen at 2.00pm.

At this point, I didn’t know what the case was about, so at 2.00pm I dialled in with an open mind.

There were about 10 people in the ‘room’ and it was a solely virtual hearing. 

It wasn’t immediately clear who was who. The court clerk then appeared and after a roll call of those present, introduced Mr Justice Hayden.

 Even though my camera and microphone were off, I wasn’t quite sure what to do when she announced, ‘court rise!’. I stayed seated with my cup of tea, as did everyone else on screen to my relief. 

The first barrister then started presenting her argument, and at this point I still had no idea who was who or what the case was about. Mr Justice Hayden rather quickly interrupted her, and said words to the effect of: 

As you may know, this court is open for members of the public to sit in on who may not have the information we have before us about the case. Please could you start by introducing the case and providing a background of events to date.’

The hearing was about P, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome whose parents had divorced. From what I could make out, this was the case’s first appearance under a ‘Tier 3’ (High Court) judge, but the exact outcomes both parties wanted remained slightly unclear. 

From what I could gather, there was a differing opinion between the mother and father as to how much time P should spend with each, at an activity centre, and also with regards to carers who would support the father with P’s intimate hygiene needs. 

Various pieces of evidence were presented by both sides of the court, including capacity assessments about P’s thoughts and also occupational therapy assessments about Ps needs. 

The mother and father were present throughout the court, but remained silent (as did I).

The capacity assessment was particularly interesting for myself as a doctor, as these are assessments I do on a daily basis. 

The hearing lasted roughly an hour and adjourned without the bang of a gavel like I was half expecting. There was no clear conclusion to the outcome at the end, other than P should spend as much time as possible with her elderly paternal grandmother.

What struck me most about the case was how personable Mr Justice Hayden was. He took a particular interest in the activities at the activity centre P wanted to go to with her friends, remarking how beneficial an ‘Adult disco’ would be for someone like P.

There were a surprising number of humorous moments and on the whole the court was a lot less serious and formal than I was expecting. 

The hearing ended very promptly without me having to say anything or even introduce myself on the call. 

Overall, it wasn’t quite the ethically challenging case I was expecting but the experience of being able to watch a Court of Protection hearing was fascinating. 

As a doctor, I’d now like to observe another hearing which is perhaps more medically focused.  However, I find it quite exciting how cases are published last minute and you don’t quite know what’s going to be presented. 

It was very beneficial for myself as a medical professional, and would encourage others working in healthcare to try and observe similar hearings. 

I hope that I never have to be a witness at a Court of Protection hearing. However having the experience of observing one at this stage has given me a good idea of what to expect should it ever occur. 

Sam Elcock is a Foundation Year doctor in Birmingham.  Originally from Liverpool, he graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020.  Previously serving as a reservist, he is now in the Regular Army and is undertaking general medical training with the intention of becoming an Army GP.  He tweets @Samelcock97

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

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