What’s it like going to court? A parent’s perspective

We are grateful to our reader Sam who has been through care proceedings. She gives her view of what happens in court and some suggestions about how to make the experience less stressful.

 

What happens in court?

Its stressful – so be prepared.

For many people care proceedings are the first time they have been in court . They may have an idea from watching courtroom dramas on TV , after a couple of hearings they quickly realise that the programmes are nothing like the family court.

I can best describe the stress as similar but more severe than attending a very important job interview. In fact it is the same only that you are being assessed as being a suitable candidate to still parent your children, rather than an alternative candidate whether it’s the local authority or a family member taking over the care of them.

Just as you would for a job interview, work out the route to court and how long it will take you to get there. Dress smartly but comfortably. If you bring someone to support you make sure they are someone who will calm you down. If your hearing is early in the morning it may take another 15 minutes or so to get through security so factor this time in as well.

You should be able to find your solicitor,and barrister if you have one who after talking briefly to you and passing any paperwork to you will then be likely disappear to talk the other lawyers in an advocates meeting. Look at the paperwork and see if there is anything you disagree with. The court waiting area may be very busy and if your solicitor has found a private room it may be a good idea to stay in it. After the advocates meeting your lawyer will come back to talk to you and this is when you should point out anything wrong in the paperwork.

Rarely do you actually go into court at the appointed time, there is normally at least an hours wait quite often more and your stress level may rise at this time. It is useful to do something distracting or some relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or simply slowly counting to ten then counting back to one. It pays not to drink coffee as this as the same effect on the body as anxiety does. Keep well away from anyone who may upset you such as social workers or your ex mother in law for example.

When you are called into court ,it is in a rush so no time to pop to the loo or phone your Mum. Your phone must be switched off not put on silent.

 

Going into the court room

Normally when you go in the judge will not be there , but there will be between one or two members of court staff. You will be told where to sit . If you only have a solicitor you will sit directly behind them. If you have a barrister, sometimes called counsel, as well they will sit in front of your solicitor and the solicitor will sit next to you. After a couple of minutes one of the court staff will go and ask the judge to come in. As the judge comes in they will bow and everyone bows back. The judge will not be wearing a wig and normally does not wear robes but will occasionally. Judges are quite ofton middle aged men. They can be abrupt in their manner to both the lawyers and you. All hearings are recorded so be very careful what you say even as you leave the courtroom.

The local authority solicitor or if they have a barrister will stand up and will introduce everyone to the judge at least at the initial hearing.It all feels very formal and intimidating.

The judge is addressed differently according to what level of court you are in . Do not worry about this , you will soon catch on and you do not have to talk anyway at this stage. The local authority lawyer will make a speech to the judge , then the other lawyers will. The judge will ask some questions. It is a good idea to take a notepad to note down anything you disagree with. You communicate with your lawyer by tapping them, gently, on the back then pass them the note.

 

The First Hearing

The first hearing is about case management which is basically administration, setting dates, and talking about if experts are needed. There may be discussion on the threshold, which means whether the judge has decided that the legal test for your child being harmed has met. If it has an interim care order will be made which is likely to last to the final hearing.

You do not get to tell your story and you are likely to feel upset at being talked about like this in public. You are also going to be confused about what is happening.

After the judge has listened to the lawyers, for a second time he comes to decisions,  including the date of the next hearing. These decisions are called orders

After the hearing , your lawyer will go into a another meeting with the other lawyers to make sure the orders are written down in the way the judge said. Your lawyer will come and speak to you afterwards and explain simply what has actually happened in court.

You may be feeling emotional, once again try and contain these feelings whilst you are in the court building.

 

The Final Hearing

Care proceedings are now supposed to finish in twenty six weeks and it is not until towards the end and only if there is a final hearing that you will get to tell your story to the judge and even then it will not be what you expected.

You will be cross examined by each of the lawyers including your own. {Edit – when your own lawyer asks you questions this is called ‘examination in chief’ and they are not allowed to ask you leading questions – which is a question which suggests the answer! – but they can do when they cross examine someone}

You stand or sit in a witness box with the court bundles (lever arch files containing all the paperwork) in front of you and the lawyers will ask you to look at certain pages then ask you questions. The court staff will help you find the pages. They ask closed questions, that is basically statements which you can only say yes or no to. Such as your child did not fall off a swing you threw them down the stairs? If they think you are lying or its an important point they will ask the question again. This can go on for several hours. The judge may ask you questions directly or may make observations about you. It will feel as though you are on trial. All other witnesses such as the social worker will also be cross examined.

The lawyers make more speeches, and the judge may then tell of his decision /judgement in a speech there and then or he may decide to do so at a later date.

 

After the Hearing

Unless your children are kept at home you will be absolutely devastated. Try and get support whether from family or friends or from groups or organisations. You may have the same symptoms as person grieving.

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