Some general advice and suggestions for making good use of a solicitor in a case involving children.
For most people, the only time they see a solicitor is when they are buying a house, or when something has gone badly wrong for them. So it is not surprising that if you have to go and see a solicitor about your child, you don’t know what to expect.
If you don’t see them in real life, the other place is TV and in films.
The only solicitors we see on television tend to be on crime shows where their role is limited to either (a) being quiet and nodding or (b) saying “Stephen, you don’t have to answer that Stephen!” just as Stephen confesses all, two minutes before the final credits. Or those personal injury lawyers, walking along a street in crisp white blouses looking all stern and ready to kick someone’s ass on your behalf if you fell off a stepladder.
They are either nodding dogs, or rottweilers with lipgloss…
So, when you go to see a family lawyer, you will find that they won’t be like either of those things. They aren’t quiet nodders, and they aren’t rottweilers with lipgloss (well, not always)
[Three quick definitions of phrases we use as solicitors, to put into plain english :- a solicitor is someone who works in law, who has a degree and has passed specialised training to become a solicitor, and a lawyer is anyone who works in law. All solicitors are lawyers, but not all lawyers are solicitors. And then ‘instructions’ means the things that you tell the lawyer to do, or what your position is on any question that they ask you about.]
There are some things that you can really do to help yourself for that first appointment (especially important if you are paying for it yourself, since making things more efficient for them is cheaper for you)
- When you make the appointment, make it clear what it is about. Is it about a mother and father disagreeing about arrangements for a child, or is it about Social Services and your children? If the reason for your appointment is that you’ve been sent some papers telling you that you have to be in Court on Thursday, make sure you tell them that, so that the person you are seeing knows that they will be going to Court with you on Thursday.
- Bring with you the stuff they tell you to bring. That will usually be, something with your photo on it, and something with your address on it (so they know that you are who you say you are), some recent payslips or benefit book (so that they can work out whether you qualify for free legal advice and can take copies) and any court papers you have been sent.
(I know that the temptation when you get court papers is to tear them up, or write “LIES” all over the margins, but that really is going to make it harder for your lawyer, as they will be the copies they have to take to court and use)
- Have in your mind, or even written down, a short introduction – a page will do. Who are you, who are the important other people in the case. Who are the children, how old are they, where do they live. If it is about you splitting up with someone, when did you split up? And most importantly, what is the main reason why you have come to see the solicitor. “Things were all going okay, I was seeing the children every weekend, until I got this new girlfriend, then my ex stopped all contact, that was four weeks ago” or “Social Services say that my son has got a broken arm and it wasn’t an accident and now they want to take it to Court” that sort of thing.
- Be clear in your mind, and say to them, what it is that you really want to achieve. “I want to get my contact started up again” “I want my son to stay with me and not go into care”
- You may also want to have in your mind a Plan B – if it is not possible to get what you really want, what is the next best thing? Having a Plan B doesn’t mean that your solicitor will give up on your main thing and go straight for that, it just means that it is better to be prepared in case your main aim is not something you can achieve straight away.
- Everything you say to your lawyer is secret. They won’t tell anyone else, so you can tell them the truth. The one qualification to that is that if you tell them that you have lied, and ask them to keep on with that lie for you, they won’t be able to do that. So you would have to then decide whether to get new solicitors, or whether to change your instructions to them so that you aren’t asking them to lie to the Court.
[You might be a bit surprised about that – I know that for most people, lawyers and lies go together like wasps and strawberry jam, but actually, there are really strict rules about it. A lawyer can’t ever lie to the Court or mislead the Court. They can legitimately do their best to put you in the best possible light, and to take any criticisms that other people are making about you and defend you against them, but they can’t say that you did X or Y, or didn’t do X or Y, if you have told them different. The rule is that they can make you look good, or less bad, but they can't lie for you]
- Your lawyer is going to have the best chance of being able to achieve what you want if there are no surprises in store for them. It is no fun preparing a case for Mother Theresa, only to get to Court and find that the other side have lots of evidence that you drink like a fish and were in prison for punching policemen in the face. Best to know that sort of thing up front, so the lawyer can deal with it and plan for it.
- Give the lawyer the best way to get in touch with you – whether that is mobile, email, or by letter. If there are specific problems (you can send me a text, but I never check my voicemail) then let them know. If you change your mobile number or your address, let them know.
- If during the meeting, or afterwards, you feel like you don’t understand something, just ask. You have come into a world that is strange, that has weird language, weird customs and everything is new to you. It really is fine to say “Hang on a second, I’m not sure I get what a CAFCASS officer is, can you explain it again?”
- At the end of the meeting, make sure you know what is going to happen next. Are they asking for you to do anything? If so, what is it, and when should you do it? Or are they doing something for you, in which case what is it, and when would they need to talk to you or see you again?
Going to Court
- Make sure you know where the Court is, and what time you’ve got to be there. You usually want to be in Court forty minutes or so before the hearing is due to start. Be aware that like a doctors surgery, everyone is told to be there at ten or two, so you might not be the first case to be heard and there might be waiting around.
- Get to Court on time. Take the papers with you, and when you book in, say which case you are there about and who your solicitor is. If you can’t make it or you are late, ring your lawyer to let them know. They may have booked someone else – a barrister to come to court and speak to the court on your behalf. They will know the background to your case and they will probably have some additional things they want to talk to you about.
- Probably not a good idea to talk to anyone else who is on the case or sit near them, just find a spot on your own until your lawyer finds you.
- As tempting as it is to go up to the social worker / your ex and shout “Happy now are you?” or similar stuff, you should really avoid it.
- When you go into Court, sit on the row directly behind your lawyer. It is Court manners to all stand when the Judge/Magistrates come in, and go out. (Usually there will be someone official who says “All stand”). Even if you are a rebel-without-a-cause “nobody tells me what to do” sort of person, just stand up, it really isn’t worth causing a fuss over.
- Ideally in the Court hearing, unless you are giving evidence, the only person you should speak to is your lawyer, which you will do very quietly. Don’t interrupt or shout out when other people are talking, and don’t sit there whilst other people are talking saying “well, that’s lies” and so on. If someone does say something that is wrong, or a lie, or a mistake, gently get your lawyers attention and let them know what you have to say about this.
- Storming out of the Court room, slamming the door never looks good. If you need to leave the room, just quietly say to your lawyer that you have to go outside for a bit, and why. And when you come back in, don’t make a big fuss, just come and sit down behind your lawyer.
- After the hearing, make sure you understand what happens next, what anyone expects you to do, and if the case is coming back to court on another day, that you know when that day is.
- If you think you are going to have to give evidence, ask your lawyer beforehand how that works – where you stand, how to speak and so on. Your lawyer can’t tell you how to answer certain questions (that’s called ‘coaching’ and is banned) but they can give you tips on how to give your evidence and how to keep calm if you find yourself getting confused or upset or angry.
- You will give evidence from the witness box. The first thing you will have to do is give a promise to tell the truth, and that promise is written down on a sheet of card for you to read out. You can swear on the bible, or other holy book, or you can ‘affirm’ which means reading the promise out without having your hand on a holy book, if you aren’t religious.
- The top tips in giving evidence are that everyone in the room is trying to write down what you say, so speak a bit louder and a bit slower than you normally would, don’t take anything personally, and it is not a quiz show where you have to answer immediately so if you want to take a few seconds to think about your answer that is fine.
Hopefully, and this is the idea of the whole thing, you will find a lawyer who listens to what you have to say, gives you good advice and who you feel you can trust and who is doing the best job they can for you.
If you don’t, you need to try to sort this out. Not by simply not communicating with them, or by ringing them up and shouting, but by saying “The other day when X happened, I don’t think you really did what I wanted. Can you explain why that happened?”
If you can’t resolve it by talking through your problem, then you may want to get another lawyer, maybe someone at the same firm, maybe a different one, and you should be able to get guidance on how that works.
But if you don’t talk to your lawyer, especially about any big changes in your life or your case, or about your worries or doubts, they won’t be able to help you, and that is what they are there for.