By Eleanor Tallon, 28th January 2021
It could be said that my ‘Open Justice’ observer experience didn’t get off to a very good start.
I tried from 8.20am on the 26th January 2022 to access a hearing before Mr Justice Hayden, which was at 10.30am. I had no response and continued to contact the court by phone, but to no avail, until Celia Kitzinger came to my aid and emailed the judge’s clerk directly on my behalf. Following that, I was sent login details to a viewing via ‘Cloud Video Platform’ at 11am, though there was no access to this, and it turned out the hearing had been mistakenly listed on the RCJ website as ‘hybrid’ (meaning both remote and in person access), when it was actually only open to observation in person.
I had some free time the next day so I tried again.
On the evening on 26th January, as soon as I spotted a case listed on the Open Justice Court of Protection Project Twitter feed, I emailed the Birmingham Court, as instructed, to request access to a hearing the following day (27th September 2022, COP 13607901, before Judge Thomas). I then followed up the request the next morning with a reminder, and received an email to say that the Judge would consider my request.
Further to this I received access and log in details and whilst frantically trying to gain entry, I had a very helpful phone call from (an administrator possibly?) from the Birmingham Court who helped me to navigate the technology and I successfully gained access (this seemed like an achievement in itself!).
The hearing was already underway, and the respondent’s counsel was in full flow, going through the details of various complaints made against the Local Authority. Mid -way through her delivery, the Judge stopped her and highlighted that ‘Ms Tallon has joined the proceedings’.
The Judge then went on to say that as I had only requested access at 10.50pm the evening before, she had not had time to go through formalities. She then referred to Claire Martin, another public observer (and core member of the Open Justice Court of Protection Project) who was also observing the proceedings and requested that we ‘kindly leave’. So that was that.
Abrupt as it was, I duly obliged, and felt slightly down beaten at this point.
The advice from Celia had been that it was typical to request access on the morning of the hearing (as listings aren’t usually available until the evening before then) and I thought I had been one step ahead of the game by sending in my request the evening before. Clearly not – for this judge, anyway.
Thankfully I had already created a Plan B and had received access details for an 11.30am telephone conference hearing before Judge Hilder, so I swiftly moved onto finding out about the etiquette for phone hearings (seeking further advice from Celia, again gratefully received) and writing up my experience thus far.
I was just about to dial in to the phone conference to observe the hearing before Hilder J when I saw an email to say I could re-join the Birmingham hearing – I hadn’t realised I was going to be allowed back in!
At that point I felt it was worth committing to the phone hearing, and it turned out that it was in relation to a DOLS application (which I was pleased to hear as it felt like familiar territory). I was quickly admitted to the call, and as Celia had explained, the transparency order was explained to me by Judge Hilder. I asked if I could have a copy of the transparency order sent to me via email (as advised by Celia, who prefers to see transparency orders before publishing blogs about hearings). Judge Hilder politely declined to send me the transparency order and made it clear that the contents of the hearing could not be published. Therefore, I presumed there no prospect of sharing the content of that particular case with any other members of the public.(As it turned out, the phone hearing only lasted 15 minutes.)
It was odd to be part of a phone hearing, in that I’m very experienced as a Best Interest Assessor in attending virtual meetings (usually via Teams or Zoom) but have never in 13 years of professional life been part of a phone conference. It felt incredibly disconcerting not to have a visual picture of others and not to have the greatest sound quality, especially in respect of Judge Hilder. I think this was felt too by the Judge as she made a point of requesting a video conference for the next hearing.
Despite this shaky start, I am not discouraged. I actually now feel more equipped and confident about completing a successful observation next time, though I’m not sure I would have got even over the first hurdles were it not for Celia’s help.
I do think there is room for improvement in terms of allowing and facilitating public access to Court of Protection hearings (and our right to report from them) – and it seems there may be disparity between different judges in terms of how well they understand and implement access for public observers?
I hope to report back on a successful observation soon!
Eleanor Tallon is a Best Interests Assessor and Specialist Practitioner in MCA and DOLS. She tweets @Eleanor_Tallon