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A Typical Day In Court

October 20, 2011

Depending on your cases, court can be a big or a small part of the job, but it is AWLAYS part of the job at some stage. Most of it goes on without any onlookers being Family Law and subject to the In Camera rule. I figured it might be interesting to describe, without breaching In Camera, a typical day out in the district court.

The Court Building is an old building that has had a modern court service show-horned into it. Each day begins with everyone crowding into a small hall, with no windows, no ventilation and no seating. Here we wait, and wait, and wait. The typical day at court is spent standing around in this small hall outside the actual court room waiting first for the judge to arrive and get proceedings underway, waiting for Lawyers and barristers to negotiate, and waiting for your case to be heard. While the participants are expected to be there from 10:30, there doesn’t seem to be the same expectation on the judges. Further, there is no clear time-table for cases, so you could be done in two minutes, or wait around several hours before being heard, just one of the many things that makes a day at court so unpredictable, time-consuming and ultimately frustrating.

Regardless, here we are hanging around in this windowless corridor…but its not just the social workers in this corridor, the families are all here, waiting around endlessly too, waiting to have a judge take their child, waiting for access to be refused, waiting for the worst to happen. Standing there in front of them are us social workers, the people who are inflicting this on them, which needless to say adds a little tension to the atmosphere in this windowless corridor. Several clients have said to me something like “I saw you in court laughing and joking with the others, I didn’t find it funny that my family was being torn apart, why was it so funny to you?”. One client even felt the need to shout something similar at us while we were waiting around before the hearing. This friction can have the consequence of undermining any relationship which has been so carefully built with a client.

Running around among this crowd are lawyers and barristers from both sides – arguing, negotiating, and doing their best to fit the shades of grey of the world of social work in the black and white world of law, which is not always a good fit.

And still we wait, Hanging around in the middle of a windowless corridor. No matter what is happening in you other cases, everything gets dropped for the time you are in court. With no access to IT or the HSE database trying to catch up on other work can’t be done. Without access to a room of our own with adequate privacy even simple phone calls prove impossible. You stand and wait, thinking about all the work you need to do but cant.

Eventually you wind up in the courtroom itself, in front of a judge. Now the court rooms themselves have large windows and comfortable seats. They are well-lit and have air conditioning and climate control. The complete opposite of the corridor we have been waiting in really.  The judges themselves add another layer of uncertainty to the day, increasing the stressful atmosphere. When we arrive earlier in the day you wont have any idea which Judge you will be in front of, and which judge can really matter.  Each Judge is of course a learned and experienced and conducts each case professionally, but they each have their own personality and it is worrying how much this can impact a case. One judge is very legalistic, very black and white, which as I say above, doesn’t always fit well with social work, but you know what you are gonna get. Another Judge is more favourable to alcoholic parents then other parents, I don’t know why but they get an easier ride. Another Judge has said that he likes a good shout at somebody at least once a day, and will usually pick a social worker a whipping boy. So, for all that time you are waiting (I have mentioned the waiting a lot, mostly because there is lots of it) you have no idea if it will be plain sailing or if it will be a half hour of getting shouted at by a Judge for poor comma usage (this has actually happened).

There is another inconsistency in the judges that is deeply frustrating. A wide variety of professionals can be trooped before a judge each day, social workers, doctors, Gardai, Guardians-Ad-Litem, psychologists, family support workers, lawyers and barristers. It is quite clear there is a hierarchy and that social workers are at the bottom. Judges display their disdain for social workers in subtle and not so subtle ways. The shouting is only ever directed at social workers, no other professional gets this treatment. The weight given to opinions of other professionals is greater, even if they are saying the same thing. I have witnessed the HSE getting trashed for not submitting reports three days in advance, while accepting gladly evidential reports from other professionals in the middle of a hearing. One judge complained loudly that the reports were being sent to him in the wrong file format, saying he wanted them in Word, not as PDF’s when the HSE lawyers pointed out the social worker’s reports were in fact submitted as Word documents the Judge backed down, saying that it would be unreasonable to make the same demand of other professionals. The social workers can be ordered around, but others held in higher esteem escape this.

Also in the mix in the atmosphere can be a nervous tension over being cross-examined while giving evidence. Some lawyers and barristers are very very good at this, others just hit you a sledge-hammer of questioning attempting to undermine you as a person since they can’t get at your case. This is all part of the job, both mine and theirs, and I try not to take it personally, but it all adds to the nervous tension in the air.

At the end of the day there is a child, or several children, whose future depends all on this spectacle, and that can be the worst part, and the most stressful part. We as social workers try to do our best for a young person, but if the court doesn’t agree for whatever reason including perhaps our evidence wasnt strong enough, that can have real consequences. these are the cases where you can easily be haunted by the personal doubt of “did I  do enough?”.The cases that are most stressful is where you, or more accurately, the child, have the most to lose.

 

So…where does that leave us. Well it leaves the whole proceeding as a tense, frustrating experience, for all concerned.

Is there anything that can make this better? Lots of things! Simple things like giving the social workers some office space, maybe even with a computer hooked up to the HSE database, but even with just some privacy to allow work to be done, and to reduce the tension with parents. On a deeper level, passing a children’s rights amendment would make a significant difference, and the balancing of the competing rights would be a closer approximation of the shades of grey of social work. Beyond this, if we want to go deeper, complete overhaul of how the courts work has been argued for in the past, replacing common law combat in family law with a balanced inquisitorial system that is not acting as referee between two sides. For discussion on this see Protecting Irish Children Better – The Case For An Inquisitorial Approach in Child Care Proceeding by Kieran McGrath

 

Still, all in all, it’s better than a trip to the children’s court in Smithfield, but that’s a story for another post….

 

 

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. ermintrude2 permalink
    October 20, 2011 05:27

    Thanks for sharing your day! It’s really interesting to read about it!

  2. jontybabe permalink
    October 21, 2011 21:34

    I was instantly transported to our local family proceedings court when I read your post. We social workers are treated dreadfully through the whole legal process! Hate those bloody windowless corridors! I’ve seen fights break out there! It’s like being thrown to the lions standing there with clients!

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