This is a post by Sarah Philimore
On 30th March I was really pleased to travel to Huddersfield University with Lucy Reed at the invitation of Jenny Molloy AKA Hackney Child to have a go at ‘training’ social work students in cross examination skills.
This is something we have often discussed and thought would be a really good idea, but was the first time we had ever attempted to put into practice. As it was our first time I am sure there were things about the structure of the day which could have worked better, but on the whole I was really pleased with how it went and I hope that both the students (and us) learned quite a lot about each other’s worlds.
We’ve asked for honest feedback about what worked well and what could have been done better and we hope this is something we can set up more locally in the South West.
What did I think worked well?
Huddersfield had worked tirelessly to produce case materials which mirrored well the complexity of a real life set of care proceedings. We had discussions about whether or not a full on ‘mock trial’ would work well. However, the difficulty with this (in my view) is that often people become overwhelmed by ‘learning their lines’ and the real point of the exercise gets lost.
We made some brief introductory remarks about the role of lawyers in care proceedings and some practical ‘top tips’ for answering questions – never be afraid to say you don’t know the answer!
We then had some brief evidence from both the ‘guardian’ and the ‘mother’ and a more focused attempt to ‘cross examine’ individual students with questions directed at certain ‘themes’ arising in the case papers – had the mother been assessed fairly? What support had been offered to her? We also had some direct contributions from ‘real life’ magistrates about how they approached cases in their courts.
We asked the students what they thought of their colleagues’ answers; what would they have done differently? what was a ‘good’ answer? These questions branched out into quite far ranging discussions about many aspects of practice and procedure in the courts, the importance of primary evidence and the impact of case law.
Jenny Molloy played the role of the mother with considerable skill, transporting me immediately to a real court room and many of my real cases. She demonstrated the frustration and misery of a person in a process which they do not understand and which provokes huge emotional reactions. What struck me the most about Jenny’s contribution was how she underscored the life long impact of such proceedings on entire families; the siblings who may grieve for the loss of family members they never even had time to get to know and the importance of life story work for everyone.
Know your audience – the rule of law.
For me, the most important ‘headline’ of the day was some reinforcement of the concerns I expressed last year in this post about my discussions with some social workers on line about the law being ‘an aspect’ of their work.
Obviously, for me, arguing in court is 80% of my professional life (the other 20% being tedious admin and looking for documents that have completely disappeared on my desk, 5 seconds after being placed there). But for these students, their professional lives may well involve the court process as only a tiny fragment of what they do. But when they do come to court, their involvement can be absolutely crucial to the smooth running of a case and its fair determination.
We do desperately need to understand each other; what we do and why we do it.
A key point made was ‘know your audience’ – which applies to any delivery of any information. What happens to the social worker in court who doesn’t appreciate what the Judge wants to hear? We asked how many of the students had heard of Re B-S or Re W (which talked about more creative options for post adoption contact, among other things). Very few had.
This was interesting. I have written about cases which have ‘gone off the rails’ – we can’t afford for this to happen, in any sense of that word. The 26 week timetable is unforgiving and often unyielding. But nor can we berate social workers for not ‘speaking to their audience’ if they do not know who their audience is and what they want to hear.
I would be really grateful for suggestions/comments from anyone about what would be useful in terms of further work between the lawyers and the social work profession. It would be nice to think that our trip to Huddersfield was not just a ‘one off’.
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) March 30, 2017