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The new normal- Sarah Branson

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Sarah Branson specialises in acting for children, vulnerable parents and local authorities in public law proceedings. Here, she gives us a raw and in-depth look into what the remote working “new normal” looks like and how things have changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many months ago, in the warm sunshine at that start of all this, I wrote a blog for Women In Family Law about practising as a barrister from home as a single mother during lockdown.

Back then, things were very new and everyone was finding their feet. It’s fair to say I was not a fan of remote court room hearings (more on that below) but in large part we were all getting used to a very different way of working and things felt very strange and unreal. I didn’t imagine that, nearly a year later, I would be writing another piece still in the midst of lockdown. Set against the backdrop of terrifying reports of global warming – and reruns of David Attenborough’s Perfect Planet – It still feels a bit like the Universe has sent us to our rooms to think about what we have done.

Hearings are largely conducted on video platforms now, rather than on the telephone. We are developing our advocacy skills to this new format. Every cross examination starts with “can you see and hear me” and “you’re on mute” “you’re on mute” “you’ve frozen” “I’ve frozen” “have I frozen?” is the soundtrack to pretty much every court hearing.

We have all learned to adapt, and at least video hearings allow for simultaneous communication with clients, the virtual “I am turning my back” a flurry of WhatsApp messages. I am pleased to say that not a single client in almost a year of remote working has abused having my phone number. I have not received a single unsolicited message or phone call so haven’t had to use the block function on a single occasion. Given that in care proceedings we represent the most desperate and vulnerable in society that’s a real testament to the mutual respect that has been fostered under this new way of working. It’s a very different way of working for us all. I completed a case last week – one that I had been instructed on at the very start of lockdown – which concluded with my having never met the client face to face. The final hearing had been adjourned as unsuitable for a remote hearing, but then proceeded entirely remotely on Microsoft Teams. We all did the best we could with the tools we had, and she did have a fair hearing. But helping a client that way, from where I sit, felt like eating a cake with the wrapper on it or stroking a cat wearing thick leather gloves. There’s something off about it.

But I have been able to represent more people as the constraints of travelling between court rooms has been lifted. I can (if push comes to shove) be in Norwich at 10, Croydon at 12 and Slough at 2. This has meant that I have been able to represent people that I might never have been able to help in courts I would not usually be able to travel to. Working from home means it is also difficult to switch off – and It’s also meant that I have worked every evening (after my son goes to bed) or get up early to work, weekends (where else am I going to go right?) and through every cancelled vacation. It’s not all bad, it means I have easily afforded the small presents I keep ordering for myself – just to have someone say hello to at the door – and the gorilla giftings that have kept me sane. My office now resembles Kew Garden’s hot house and I know there are instructing solicitors out there wondering why Brixton gin has arrived after some bad news (it was me!). I am thankful every day that I have been able to work throughout the pandemic, however hard it has seemed at times, when so many people have had the financial rug from pulled under them.

With the benefit of time having passed, I am starting to see the funny side of some of the most mortifying mishaps. Although I have managed to escape attending any court hearing as a cat or, any other creature, I did have to compete with Queen’s “don’t stop me now” blaring out of the speakers in my office just as I started to address a Judge. I yelled “Alexa Stop” only to have it start up again. It transpired my son had inadvertently paired the kitchen (“home classroom”) speakers with my office speakers. It certainly did stop-me-now-in-my-tracks as I apologised to the Judge, turned off my computer camera and microphone and madly ran round my office unplugging every device. It made me wonder whether “don’t stop me now” might be a nicer soundtrack to a hearing that “you’re on mute, you’ve frozen” although others might pick another track for me from the 80s by Joe Dolce which famously kept Ultravox’s Vienna off the top spot .

In the way that communication with clients during hearings has been reduced to WhatApp conversations, as has communications with home schooled kids , particularly if the Court unexpectedly sat through lunch without warning. On one occasion there were three single mums on a hearing and we broke for lunch at 2pm. By this time my son (having used his initiative and responding to my WhatsApp message to get himself some food) managed to set fire to himself and a saucepan leading me to flee out of the office to put him out just as the Judge called me to ask my questions. Thankfully no harm done other than to my saucepan, his sleeve and my professional reputation.

I later learned from supportive email exchanges between the other counsel that the others had encountered similar difficulties. One got off lightly – but her kids ate dry cereal and Percy Pigs for lunch – the other’s child (similarly using his initiative) had tried to make a hot chocolate for his little sister by boiling milk in the kettle. Inevitably the kettle blew up and learned counsel couldn’t even make herself a nice cup of tea to get over it.

I ended my last blog saying that I didn’t see any place for remote hearings and hoping that things would go back to “normal” as soon as possible. We are now in the “new normal” and as I contemplate going to my first in person hearing next week (actually going to court with real people) to represent my client who is the victim of significant domestic abuse I wonder whether she might prefer to see her aggressor on a screen rather than in the flesh in a court room. This has made me wonder whether there might be some place for remote hearings in the future, and they are likely here to stay. It has also made me very proud that my jurisdiction has been so adaptive to the extraordinary challenges that this year inside has presented to us.

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