By Mollie Heywood, 12th June 2022
I am a full-time children’s social worker and part time law student and aspiring barrister, passionate about social justice and human rights.
I wanted to observe a Court of Protection case because I find this area of law particularly interesting – and I learnt from Celia Kitzinger (who blogged about an earlier hearing in this case) that there was a Litigant in Person involved in this hearing. This was of particular interest to me as I have observed many such cases as a social worker and in different courts. In my view, learning from the experiences of Litigants in Person and the difficulties they have navigating the legal system, in personal and emotive circumstances, is vital to supporting future Litigants in Person, particularly in light of reduced legal aid funding.
I observed the hearing (COP 13861341) over Microsoft teams before HHJ Francis, on Wednesday 8th June 2022.
The Local Authority and P, with legal representatives, a social worker and a relative of P, attended virtually, with cameras on, and with the ability to see the other parties on screen. The protected party’s wife ( W ) also attended virtually, but (as before) via telephone. In my experience, there are always further complications when one attendee is over the phone: the audio is of reduced quality, for both sides, and the person attending via phone can’t be seen, and can’t see the other participants. This was particularly evident when, at one point, W asked who was there.
As at the previous hearing, an interpreter was employed, but for some reason I was not privy to, there was a delay in getting her access to the hearing arranged, and so there was a delay of over an hour and a half. The hearing had been listed for 10:30am but didn’t start until after noon.
The hearing was very short, around 25 minutes. No significant submissions were heard. The judge just asked if there had been any progress since the previous hearing and whether any agreements had been reached.
There had not been any progress. P’s wife opposes the position taken by the Local Authority and by the Official Solicitor (on behalf of P): she is not willing to move out of Number 15 without a court decision, and wants to have unrestricted contact with P. This is not, in the view of the other parties, in P’s best interests (see previous blog about this case for more details).
The arrangements for the next hearing were discussed: P was to attend virtually, but everyone else involved would be present in person at the RCJ. Having since checked the RCJ list, which says it will be listed on MS Teams, either the list is in error or there has been some change since the hearing on the 8th June 2022, that I’m not aware of. The contested hearing is listed before Sir Jonathan Cohen, although there was no explanation for the change in judge in the hearing I attended.
As with the first hearing, the interpreter and P’s wife had no separate platform of communication and so the court heard the ongoing interpretation throughout the hearing.
Again, W did not appear to have read any paperwork due, I think, to not having had anything available in her own language, and so arrangements were made for the interpreter to read this to her after the hearing.
This struck me as a significant disadvantage for a Litigant in Person. Having a solicitor or legal advisor to read this for her would have helped her to understand her position more clearly. Anyone who has read court bundles will know that they are often lengthy and written with legal terms and phrases alien to the layperson. I do feel for the Wife in having to rely on the interpreter to quickly read out the papers. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen information not being translated, just a cover letter, and the information left in English, and the impact on equality never fails to astound me.
As described in relation to the first hearing, I found that the Judge was acutely aware of the disadvantages faced by W as a Litigant in Person and as someone using an interpreter. He encouraged her (as he had done previously at the last hearing) to get legal representation. He reassured her she wouldn’t have to pay for this. She stated, through the interpreter, that she is opting not to be represented at Monday’s contested hearing. She didn’t say why. It wasn’t clear, to me at least, if she had sought legal advice since the previous hearing.
The Judge asked that some discussions should take place between the parties following the short hearing, in the hopes that some agreement and conclusion could be reached. However, this must not have been possible, as the contested hearing is listed for Monday 13th June 2022.
Although this was a short hearing and in effect nothing much happened, I am glad I observed this hearing because it has given me greater insight into the role of Litigants in Person, particularly those that have the additional complication of using interpreters.
As an aspiring barrister, I noted the ways in which the barristers interacted with W, through the interpreter. I’ve not seen these barristers before, but they spoke slowly and clearly and used plain English. They tried to support W’s understanding of and inclusion in proceedings.
I hope that W is able to attend in person on Monday 13th June 2022 and is able to experience the contested hearing on more equal footings with the other parties.
Mollie Heywood is a full time children’s social worker and part time law student at the University of Law and aspiring barrister, passionate about social justice and human rights. She tweets @mollieaheywood
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash