Adjusting to the ‘new normal’ – preparing for a telephone hearing in a family law matter instead of attending in person at the court. Surely, it ought to simple enough – you just do what you would always do to prepare but instead of rocking up at Canterbury County Court at the appointed time you answer the phone and hey ho away you go…good morning judge how are you today?
The life of litigation is never that simple. In this the second of the Kent Law Clinic’s ‘life during lockdown’ updates, I record the practical difficulties, novel obstacles and added stresses of conducting litigation during these far from normal times.
We start in medias res. It is Saturday. There’s a hearing listed in a few days away.
I start to contemplate how problematic it is going to be preparing for a Family Court hearing due to take place at 10.00am on Thursday at the Family Court at Canterbury Combined Court Centre.
My first thought – will there be a hearing at all?
I know the Courts have been working hard to continue functioning during the COVID-19 crisis, but many hearings have had to be adjourned to ensure safety. It’s hard to get information specific to your case from the HMCTS website. The Court is unlikely to answer telephone calls. They were already understaffed due to budget cuts and this is only compounded by social distancing rules and the command to ‘stay home’.
I plan on the basis that something will happen.
I begin to quietly worry about some outstanding evidence needed in the case. To be specific three pieces of evidence (two reports and some medical records) were overdue due to COVID-19 which has GPs and Social Workers working harder than ever. Plus, I will need time to go through the documents myself and then with my client. But first things first, I have to get hold of the documents. The clock is ticking.
I log in to my emails early on Monday morning. Nothing. For some reason, I decide to check my junk mail folder. There waiting for me is an email from a Social Worker sent on Friday asking me to confirm my email address is ‘secure’. I phone the Social Worker and confirm the email address is safe. Seconds later, another email arrives attaching missing report number one – 29 pages of dense information to read and process. I email the author of the second report. She replies straight away. She had posted a copy of her report directly to the client on Friday, rather than to me, the legal representative. I ask for an email copy – 27 pages more to consider.
The Clinic Director, Graham Tegg emails me mid-morning. He’s been to the Clinic to collect the post. We’re are all working from home during the pandemic but the requirement for solicitors to check the post must still be met – that’s another story. There are three large envelopes addressed to me. Would I like him to drop them outside my house? Yes. He arrives around lunchtime, rings the bell and then steps back at least two metres as any delivery person now does. I now have 150 pages of medical records to read as well.
I realise that I need access to a photocopier and printer. There is a Court Order that requires me to serve copies of the medical records on the other party and file a copy with the Court. It will come as no surprise that I do not have a photocopier at home. I email Campus Security to request special permission to go into the Clinic on Tuesday. I am granted access for two hours. I ring my client to arrange a time to discuss everything with her. We agree to Zoom at 10.30am on Tuesday morning as she needs time to read the documents as well.
I spend the rest of the day reading and analysing the new evidence.
Apprehensively, just before 10.00am I’m outside the Clinic waiting to be let into the building by Campus Security. I am armed with a rucksack filled with the medical records, my laptop and some notes. Whilst waiting I check my email. Thank goodness for smart phones. I’ve received an email from the Court confirming that the hearing will take place by telephone on Thursday. This is a HUGE relief. We want this hearing to take place.
I’m let in. This is the first time I’ve been in the Clinic for about six weeks. I am alone apart from some plants that are all looking a bit thirsty. It’s strange to see the Clinic without any students – just rows and rows of vacant workstations. I set about turning on the photocopier and then my computer. The monitor looks alarmingly big. I’ve been working off a laptop for too long …the screen feels enormous.
I log in for the prearranged ‘Zoom’ with my client. Simple things that I take for granted surprise me. For example, It is hard to go through and discuss bundles of documents with someone when you can’t physically show them the page you are reading from. But we do our best and have a productive conversation.
I now have clear instructions from the client. That’s the important thing, as come Thursday there won’t be the opportunity to have the normal pre-hearing solicitor/client discussion outside Court door. Attending Court involves a lot of waiting – time in which details are clarified, your client’s last minute questions answered and nerves soothed as best they can be. I understand that what will happen on Thursday is that the Judge will ring us and the opponent. We will be ‘teleported’ straight into the Court room and so I need to be absolutely clear what she wants me to say. There will be no notes passed or glances between us.
After the client call, I now have to draft a ‘position statement’. This is a short two-page summary of my client’s position I am directed to send to the Court the day before the hearing. I work quickly, but these things always take longer than you anticipate. Normally, I would have a student working with me on a document like this, sharing ideas and debating phraseology. Today, it’s just me and my thesaurus.
It’s also time for some multi-tasking. I head to the photocopier with my 150 pages worth of medical records. Crossing my fingers that the copier is feeling kind and won’t jam I put the first half of the papers in, press copy and head back to my desk to refine the position statement.
Each bundle of documents needs a covering letter. I pre-prepared these last night at home as I knew I would be short on time. I add them to the list of things to print. I run to the copier and add more paper. More documents are placed in the feeder. I print off my position statement, the reports sent to me yesterday and my covering letters. I have commandeered the floor in the photocopying room. I have everything laid out in piles.
The University is in lockdown so there is no postal collection. I label up my bundles and make a pile of things to take to the post office.
I go through my checklist. I think I have done everything. I refill my rucksack – laptop, the court papers and files and more files I need to work on at home in the coming weeks. I grab my pile of post and head out of the door.
I walk to the post office. Not a fun experience standing and waiting in a cramped post office but I send my documents and head home.
Finally, a chance to do something that feels more familiar. I go through the case file, review my notes from previous client meetings and think about what I need to say in Court.
I set myself up in my makeshift home office. Instructions from the Court remind me that a telephone hearing should be treated the same as a hearing in chambers (the District Judge’s courtroom). I therefore barricade the door so my family can’t suddenly barge in.
I get an email from my client at 9.15am. Her phone has no battery and the charger is broken! I reassure her and email the Court with an alternative number she has provided.
10:08am – the Judge calls. I answer and relay the information about the alternate number for my client.
A few minutes later, we are all on the line and the hearing begins. We made it.