This is a new series of blogs by a range of women across the family justice system, providing an insight into the impact of coronavirus on women in family law.
2nd June 2020
Sarah Branson, barrister at Coram Chambers, writes about how lockdown has transformed her practice, blurring the lines between work and life. She tells Women in Family Law about the perils of using the ‘chat’ function during Zoom hearings; neighbours disrupting her examination-in-chief and her son’s contempt for her ‘Keep Out’ signs.
We all make choices about what we do with our lives based on our strengths and weaknesses. For me, a career at the Bar specialising in family law, going to court every day, interacting with people was the best fit for me as an extrovert with a conscience. I loved the variety of going to different courts, meeting people from all walks of life and hoped that by putting in the time and energy I have I could help my clients navigate through one of the most difficult times of their lives. I loved being a barrister; I was, I hope, at least competent at what I did (enough to have won that Jordan’s Award in 2018 anyway), and I had a busy and fulfilling practice.
Life under lockdown has hit me like a giant iceberg, tearing through the hull of that stability. Denied any proper interaction with the people I am trying to help, denied the opportunity to see the faces of clients I am representing, picking up on their social cues, has transformed the job I loved. Some people are suited to sitting at a desk, on the phone, in an office but I doubt that describes the people that chose the Bar over being a solicitor. In many respects I was lucky to be busy when life under lockdown hit, so I didn’t have many of the immediate financial worries some other single mothers in my position faced. I had back to back contested interim removal hearings and case management conferences in the first two weeks, all conducted by phone. I was juggling this with home schooling my 11 year old son (we were learning about the Titanic in history, so thank him for the laboured iceberg metaphor above).
Conducting telephone hearings has been a massive learning curve for everyone. How do you manage to go between talking with the advocates and your clients before the hearing as you would do at court? How do you manage to take instructions during the hearing and make sure your client’s voice is heard (through you) and that you cover all the points your client wants to say? With a massive leap of trust and faith, I simply opted to give each client my mobile number so that I could speak to them before the hearing and stay in touch by text during the hearing so that they could feel part of the process.
“Turning my back” in court has turned into a quick WhatsApp exchange. In one instance, the court was unable to reach a litigant in person as the number was taken down wrong, so (on the judge’s invitation) I found them on Facebook, sent a message, she was identified and dialled in; this saved the hearing. I would never have dreamed of blurring the boundaries in this way before.
Thankfully, none of my clients have abused having my personal phone number or used it outside the purpose for which it was provided, but it was a massive leap of faith and I can totally understand why others might be reluctant to give out their private number as it makes us all more vulnerable to the blurred work/life boundaries lockdown has imposed on us.
The most successful hearings have been those conducted via Zoom, when everyone can see each other and there is provision for advocates and their clients to go off into “breakout” rooms to speak privately. For one hearing, the advocates on their own initiative met one hour in advance on Zoom and got the lay clients on Zoom too, breaking off into individual breakout or conference rooms. We were extremely grateful that the Judge accepted our email invitation to join us on Zoom, rather than dial us all in (a laborious process that takes the first 20 minutes of every hearing). Through this process, we were able to see that in the particular circumstances of that case an imperfect final hearing via Zoom was much preferable to the harm caused by delay of many, many months for the children involved. All agreed – most importantly the parents – that a remote hearing conducted that way was the least worst option in this compromised world. Sometimes decisions about children just can’t wait, which is why so many of us have stayed so busy.
My longest court hearing was a resumed part-heard trial which lasted longer than a week on Zoom. The ritual of getting up every morning and putting on a suit and putting on make-up helped so much in creating that divide between work and home. So much so that I always put on a jacket when I am in court now even if it’s on the phone (and even though each jacket is now feeling a little tighter than before the gyms shut). I really thought I would be that barrister with the suit jacket over PJs, or like this guy in the “Zoom suit” but it’s quite the reverse. I am sitting here typing this in my jacket, which is squeezing me ever so slightly round my expanding waist. I do wonder though, as time passes and us women don’t have access to hairdressers and dye to mask the line of grey at our hairlines, whether we might start wearing our wigs for very closed court hearings.
Zoom hearings aren’t without difficulty. They are exhausting, much more so than in person hearings, because we are constantly trying to gauge the social cues that I talk of above from a “postage stamp” screen. We’re also casting a critical eye over our own image, which we never have to do in real life. Having to wonder how I got so old, why my neck is doing that when I speak is thankfully something that doesn’t normally require thought during a cross-examination, but there’s no way to turn that off on Zoom.
It is also much harder to maintain focus. As soon as I started examination-in-chief of one witness, my saxophonist neighbour started doing scales, which was totally distracting, and I kicked off with a leading question. School boy error borne out of thinking “oh my god, can everyone hear that, what’s he playing, look at my neck!”
Zoom hearings are also dangerous too, and I would strongly recommend NOBODY USING THE CHAT FUNCTION (I DO mean to shout!) so that you don’t find yourself inadvertently sending a message to everybody (rather than your leading counsel, or friendly opponent) which probably was only just about acceptable to their eyes only. That was mortifying enough to consider, for just for a fleeting moment, the beer in the china cup idea recommended by Zoom suit guy above (but I wouldn’t do that, and drinking in the time of Covid is a whole other piece).
So, we have had to do the best we can with the tools we have, including coming up with creative ways to keep our children out of the private spaces we have had to create for court hearings at home. We all have to confirm before each court hearing that we are in a private room, where we cannot be overheard etc. I am so grateful to have bought a big house in the wrong part of town years ago and have a large, designated comfortable office, but even then, the challenges of keeping children out require creative and humorous solutions. I am grateful to a member of my chambers for providing my first “keep out” sign below.
I now have a blank proforma I fill in each day, the quality of which have deteriorated as illustrated below:
For the sake of balance, because I have struggled to see very much in the way of positives from remote working, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the, support, humour and enormous creativity shared by members of my chambers. A particularly fruitful email exchange earlier this week on the subject of returning to court with safety features in place led to a colleague coming up with this.
In our very own Coram blue! It isn’t meant to undermine the seriousness of the situation we are in but sometimes you have to laugh or cry. We choose laughter often at Coram.
Our AGM was held this week on Zoom and in the 21 years I have been in chambers I have never seen such a well-attended, well run and efficient AGM where voting was performed on screen with a click of a button! Genius.
This is so important because being a barrister is already a very solitary profession; we are all individuals, self-employed and we don’t have the team structure of a solicitors’ firm. Without the ability to interact and bounce ideas off one another at court it is even more important to find ways to be in contact.
But contact isn’t the same as connection so for my part, I won’t be advocating the continuation of remote working even for the simplest of hearings once lockdown is over. When I think of standing in the crowded corridor of the CFC trying to find an empty conference room a warm glow washes over me, and that’s nothing to do with sunshine in the garden just now.
So, as I find myself yelling “stop shouting!” through the door of my office at my Fortnite-playing/addicted son (he never even had an Xbox here before all this started) whilst wearing my sound-reducing headphones, I would rather sign off “stay sane” than the usual “stay safe.”
7th May 2020
A peek into the lockdown diary of Lucy Bluck, family and divorce trainee solicitor at Kingsley Napley. She tells Women in Family Law about remote hearings, the WFH adjustment and a virtual murder mystery party.
I was two weeks in to my second seat with the Family and Divorce team at Kingsley Napley when the government announced lockdown measures to combat the COVID-19 crisis. I had been warmly welcomed into the team, was fortunate enough to experience one hearing actually in a court building and was then promptly sent home to work for the foreseeable future. As a trainee, working from home is something I have not done very often, and I was slightly concerned that going from sharing an office with my supervisor and learning ‘through osmosis’ from others in the team to being on my own at home would negatively impact my training experience. However, I soon realised I had nothing to worry about; on both a department level and a firm-wide level, the approach has been consistent and positive.
The family department has team catch ups via Skype every Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon where we do the usual workload update and hear how everyone is getting on. There is usually at least one ‘accidental’ appearance from someone’s dog, cat, child or husband, with varying degrees of disruption and amusement. I have actually found the frequency of video call catch ups a really useful tool in getting to know everyone in the department, and haven’t felt less a part of the team as a result of conversations being online rather than in person. I also have regular catch ups with my trainee supervisor, which has been really important for me.
There is also a daily email that goes to everyone in the firm, covering the government update from that day as well as stories and pictures from people around the firm showing what they are up to during lockdown. Our HR team have also put together special guidance and links to support relating to mental health and wellbeing, which are all accessible on a central hub. These include tips for staying mentally well, working from home effectively and in an environmentally conscious way and details of the usual yoga and Pilates sessions available to all firm members, which are now being held on Skype or Zoom. Our employment and regulatory teams have together created a really useful set of FAQs about working remotely and the supervision of trainee solicitors which has been reassuring for the trainee cohort here to read.
The team have made a real effort to get me involved with various different matters, and I have been able to get experience of everything I would have done had we been in the office. For example, I have attended new client meetings (by telephone and Skype) and taken attendance notes, attended hearings and conferences with counsel and have had good exposure to matters relating to both finance and children proceedings. I have also completed my Professional Skills Elective which was delivered via an online learning platform and worked very well; as well as attending internal training sessions, for example on legal research tools, marketing skills and electronic bundling. I have attended seminars involving individuals from various sets of chambers, which has been a good way of getting to know others in the family law world.
There has been a range of experience of remote hearings across the team, and usually part of the regular Skype catch ups will be dedicated to feeding back on things that worked well (and not so well!). Within the department we have had people attending, for example, a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment, an emergency interim hearing and a Directions Hearing all via telephone; private Financial Dispute Resolution hearings and arbitrations via Zoom and Skype; and a Directions Hearing in financial remedy proceedings via Lifesize. I have been lucky enough to sit in on several of these to take attendance notes, and it has been really interesting to see how all the parties involved deal with the different challenges posed by a remote set up. There are certainly pros and cons to holding hearings remotely, but I have been impressed with the creativity and dedication to ensuring hearings can go ahead, and the fact that clients can rely on the courts to continue to deal with their matters is essential.
Outside of work, Kingsley Napley is a very sociable and friendly firm, and lockdown hasn’t changed that! Our annual charity quiz was due to be held a few weeks ago, and though it had to be postponed, we held the quiz in our department via Zoom – we split into teams and had separate WhatsApp groups to discuss the answers! Each department that took part ‘virtually’ was asked to make a donation to the charity of their choice in return for the answers, and this is just one of the ways the firm has been able to maintain its commitment to giving back to the community during this difficult time. The co-heads of our Charities and Communities Committee have produced an update on how we are helping various charities and the local community during the COVID-19 crisis, which you can read here. The commitment to responsible business was one of the main things that attracted me to Kingsley Napley and I am very proud to work for a firm that delivers positive impact for members, clients, the environment and local community alike.
We also have team drinks via Skype on a Friday to wind down and catch up at the end of the week. It’s a really lovely opportunity to chat to everyone in a social setting, and perhaps ‘see’ people you have not happened to work with during the week. As a trainee, this has been really important for me as I’ve not been able to have the usual chats whilst making a cup of tea or waiting at the printer that would ordinarily help me get to know everyone. As well mixing up these social occasions with the charity quiz, we also held a ‘virtual murder mystery party’ via Zoom, which the whole team got involved with. There were some fantastic outfits and acting skills on show; though none of us worked out who the murderer was (perhaps our criminal litigation team would have had more luck!) I’ve also made sure I keep in touch with colleagues from other departments who I would usually see and make sure that we still have lunch or coffee but over Skype instead. The trainees are also all keeping in touch with each other via Skype and WhatsApp and there is a trainee quiz coming up in the near future to keep us entertained as well!
I feel very fortunate to work at a firm where a collaborative and supportive working environment is at the very core of what we do, as it has meant the move to working remotely has not been as difficult and lonely as it might have otherwise been. But as much as I’ve enjoyed getting to know the team virtually (as well as their partners, children and pets in some cases), I can’t pretend I won’t be glad to get back into the office for a more traditional remainder of my training contract – after all, people are at the root of family law and though virtual communication and hearings are excellent short term solutions, human face to face interaction really can’t be beaten. So whilst I am very grateful for my current situation, I look forward to returning to the Kingsley Napley offices and seeing everyone: ‘interesting’ hairstyles, massively improved general knowledge, newfound yoga expertise and all.
4th May 2020
Death in the time of Corona
The title seems obvious, almost ridiculous.
If there is one thing we know about Corona – it can kill. Almost 30,000 people have died from Corona since the start of March and plenty of other people have died from other causes in the last 2 months as well.
I want to use this opportunity to share my experience of being bereaved in this period. I am writing this anonymously for a variety of reasons but mainly as I do not want the focus to be on me as an individual but for all of us to understand that behind all of the deaths are tens of thousands more families and friends who have had to deal with an already difficult and perhaps tragic loss in the worst circumstances possible.
In my case the death in my extended family was of a young man with children. He had no underlying health conditions and did indeed die from Covid. It was sudden, brutal and tragic. The emotional pain was limited for me but the effect on his close family was tremendous.
In the immediacy of his death, life was surreal. Whatever else we can achieve remotely, death and bereavement support is very limited. The death coming days before lockdown, the fear of the virus outweighed the effect of any legal restrictions which were about to come into force. Elderly parents were terrified of hugging their grandchildren to comfort them and desperately torn between wishing to stay in London to await the funeral and wanting to remove themselves from this Covid hotbed to the countryside where they live.
The traditions of visiting the bereaved, taking food, gathering as a family were all lost. Everything rendered onto Whatsapp messages or brief calls.
A desire to comfort relatives and have them to stay was brushed aside as against the necessity to force them to return home in the knowledge that the lockdown was about to come into place.
My life changed overnight from being a family lawyer. I was now the family’s expert on the new Corona legislation being debated in real time during the week of 23rd March on Coroners, treatment of funerals and forced cremations. Whilst specialist lawyers were running high level webinars on the regulatory changes, my family was living it. Would there be a post mortem? Would the family be forced to accept a cremation when they wished for a funeral? How many people and who would be permitted to attend a funeral? Would long distance travel to the funeral be prohibited?
It emphasised to me that at the end of the day the law affects real people. It really is not just words on paper to be debated over in an intellectually stimulating manner. It is a lesson we must all incorporate into our professional lives going forward.
I now turn to the funeral. To all those lawyers thinking that remote hearings are not so bad and the opposition is from dinosaurs of my vintage who do not like computers and that most things can be done remotely given a will – I hope that the reality of a remote funeral will make you stop and think. They really, really are not one of the life events which ever should be conducted remotely if at all possible. Events of high emotion simply do not lend themselves to screen time.
Only two members of the family attended the funeral in person. They were elderly and not IT proficient. Their ability to use Whatsapp is poor at the best of times and they have never graduated to Zoom. A funeral is certainly not the time to try to coax elderly relatives to install Zoom on their phones. Their filming skills have always been notoriously poor – photographs of trips to exotic locations with wonderful wildlife have produced hilarious results mainly involving the ground and handbags. It was therefore a big ask that they should livestream the funeral on Whatsapp on their phone but that is indeed what happened and to their great credit reasonably successfully. Remember that there is no opportunity for a practice run. Everything is depending on this phone call.
At the appointed hour my family and I all turned off all our devices save for one phone which was placed on the mantelpiece. We stood quietly and with our heads covered in the living room of our own home as the world went on around us. I could hear comings and goings outside, the neighbour’s child in the garden, post was delivered through the door.
We watched in silence the short service and the coffin being taken and buried over a shaky Whatsapp. This took about 20 minutes and then the camera turned off. There was no conclusion, no way to console the family, be with the other mourners. The call simply ended.
Finally, I would just ask everyone reading this to be extra kind to everyone bereaved in this period from whatever cause as they have been denied the usual human support and traditions that all of us so need in bad times. This will take time to heal.
27th April 2020
Jess Purchase is a family barrister at The 36 Group. In this post for Women in Family Law, she reflects on how COVID-19 has inadvertently improved her well-being and her work-life balance.
On the Sunday just gone, I was out for my government-approved socially-distanced walk with my partner when the conversation turned, once again, to coronavirus and the lockdown. As we were talking about things that we miss (pub beer gardens, being with friends, being with friends in pub beer gardens…) and things that we’d be glad to never have to see again (the Central line), several things dawned on me:
- It was a Sunday and I wasn’t fretting about work that I needed to do as soon as we got home;
- For the first time in years I was feeling well-rested without having to have spent a week off, completely comatose;
- Although my days this week had been busy with hearings, the work hadn’t spilled over into my evenings or weekend;
- Hobbies have crept back into my life, mainly in the form of turning every available windowsill and viable bit of outdoor space in/around our flat into a tomato farm; and
- I haven’t done any of the seemingly-compulsory lockdown activities of mastering the art of sourdough, becoming fluent in a new language, losing several stone, becoming an amateur marathon runner, deep-cleaning the flat or reading every book on the Booker Prize Shortlist, and the world hadn’t ended.*
*more than it already has
It suddenly struck me that, for me, an accidental side effect of Covid-19 has been vastly improved wellbeing and a re-striking of the fabled work/life balance.
This pandemic and the lockdown have led to enormous changes in everybody’s work and personal lives. I am not downplaying the impact of those changes or the massive amounts of stress and anxiety that they have brought with them. But I do think that this should be a starting point for us to take a good, hard look at what both wellbeing and work/life balance mean; what changes we have already made during lockdown to protect them; and how we can cling to them when this all ends and we go back to ‘normal’. After all, many other industries and companies are extremely likely to be reviewing their work policies post-lockdown to allow for changes like increased working from home – why should the same not happen for us? Why shouldn’t we aim for lasting change in family law that improves our wellbeing?
Mary-Rachel McCabe wrote an excellent article for Counsel magazine on her ‘call to arms’, saying that wellbeing should mean barristers do not feel judged for taking time out for self-preservation. She wrote that: “For me, wellbeing looks like not being in court more than three times a week, having time to go to a yoga class a few times a week, cooking dinner at home most nights, taking a walk away from my desk every day, not working past 7pm or at weekends unless I really, really have to, not working on holiday, having time to properly think about my cases … To many barristers, that might sound like an unattainable utopia but it really shouldn’t”.
This is a call to arms that I, for one, can absolutely get on board with. I want to succeed in my career at the Bar. On good days this is a job that can make you feel fizzy with excitement and there’s honestly no other job that I would rather be doing – but I don’t want that to be at the cost of what can sometimes feel like everything else in life. I want to keep doing regular yoga, go climbing with friends, have proper lunch breaks that involve more than a cereal bar inhaled in a conference room or on a train, get enough sleep more than just twice a week and have the time and energy to clear all of my work outside of weekends more often than not.
I know that a lot of the time out that I’m enjoying at the moment comes from not spending most of the week on trains up and down the country and from contested final hearings being adjourned. A large part of me is looking forward to getting back to actually being in court and not working in the same room day after day. However, I know that I don’t want to go back to semi-permanent sleep deprivation, having an extremely limited personal life and moving from case to case without time in-between to breathe. Too often this is explained away as “just life at the Bar” and something that needs to be sucked up if you want to succeed. I say that’s just not good enough. I want to add my voice to Mary-Rachel’s call to arms. I want to take this new-found balance forwards after the lockdown and cling to the changes that I’ve made. Wellbeing and balance is not an ‘unattainable utopia’ and it’s past time that they were more than just buzzwords.
10th April 2020
Charlotte Bradley is head of the Family team at Kingsley Napley, where she has been a partner since 2001. She tells Women in Family Law about the juggling act of being a single mother, a home ‘teacher’ and a family solicitor during the COVID-19 crisis.
As we approach the fourth week of lockdown, it seems an appropriate moment to write my reflections on how the COVID-19 crisis has affected working parents like me.
As a divorced mother of ten year old twins and the head of Family at Kingsley Napley, a 20+ strong team in Central London, I can honestly say that the first week of lockdown was the hardest experience since those dark days eight years ago when I separated from my children’s father. As someone who is resilient, independent and generally good at juggling, until the lockdown I’ve rarely felt like a “proper” single parent. While my twins’ father lives in York, I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent child care over the years. My current au pair understandably flew home to Dublin just before lockdown and, like millions around the country, I am trying to ‘home school’ while managing a full time job. The key to managing being a working parent, for me at least, has been to compartmentalise the different parts of my life but that is just not possible in these unprecedented times.
Parenting and ‘home schooling’
The first couple of days were a baptism of fire. My idealised vision of the three of us sitting down at the kitchen table working together harmoniously went out of the window within half an hour. First issue was IT problems; not mine (our firm’s IT systems have fortunately held out), but two different school systems crashing and my old home laptop (which my son was borrowing) had unhelpfully overnight developed ‘mouse drifting’. But, with IT support, I discovered it can be improved by lots of banging on the inbuilt mouse, so I had two willing volunteers to help. Second was a ‘quick trip’ to the local shop for a pint of milk which required three trips to supermarkets, only to discover when I got home that I’d lost my work mobile phone. After plenty of shouting and tears (the children have seen me cry more in the last two weeks than they remember) and hammering at the doors of the petrol station’s M&S (which was closed for stock taking), eventually the said phone was found, thereby avoiding a complete breakdown on day two of lockdown.
The crisis and how we have dealt with it so far has taught me a lot of things about the children and myself, in particular – while I have never thought of myself as a control freak, it is the lack of control which has caused the biggest stress for me. I love my job as a family lawyer, including the client contact, managing a superb team but also having the independence to go into the office and focus on something other than being a parent, knowing the children are being well cared for by someone else. Unlike my children, my colleagues listen and respond to what I say (or at least they do an excellent job of pretending to!). But trying to mix client calls, urgent hearings, team meetings by Skype, and crisis meetings with management – all of which are vital in the current time – with looking after two reluctant home schoolers on my own is quite simply impossible. None of us know when the schools will reopen but it’s unlikely to be anytime soon. While others may have children who happily switch on their computers and work away quietly, my two need regular bribing of screen time, snacks, breaks, hot chocolate, zoom chats with friends etc. to focus on school work. And the problem is, when stuck on a long work-related call or Skype meeting with a headset (thank god for the mute button), the bribing and certainly the boundaries go out of the window and suddenly they are on YouTube, playing Battlelands Royale or they are ferreting around in the food cupboard. As Dr Emily W King, a psychologist, recently commented “What we are being asked to do is not humanely possible… Working, parenting and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time”.
So after three days, I quickly realised that, if I was going to manage this seemingly endless period – and my family’s mental health was not to suffer permanently by constant shouting – I would need to give way on one of my three jobs, and home teaching (probably the least important at the current time and certainly my worst) has gone by the way side. So I have become much more hands off, trusting (hoping) their teachers check in on them and I have convinced myself that, at this stage with it being their last year of primary school, three to four months of very little studying will not affect them adversely.
As to my other two roles, work and parenting (which of course includes cooking, cleaning, shopping and looking after pets etc.), I realised that the only way to attempt to do even half a good job of either of these whilst doing a tiny bit of ‘school supervision’ is to do what some of my married parent colleagues are doing, i.e. ‘split shifts’. Luckily, I can delegate some work to colleagues, which is sadly not possible with the children but they have rapidly learnt to make their own lunch, stack the dishwasher and, embarrassing to admit and to the shock of my daughter and me that he didn’t know before, my 10 year old son now knows how to ‘work’ the kettle! And as to work, while not ideal, I have endeavoured to do client or third party calls early in the morning or from 12pm so I can focus on the children and household tasks in the morning. And if the children have at least managed two hours of school work in the morning (and walked Arthur, our recently acquired re-homed mad cocker spaniel), I can then focus on work for the afternoon and again in the evening.
I’ve also learnt to be selective about which parents I talk to (i.e. avoiding those who seem to have it sorted, which can be a little difficult if they happen to be your friends or clients!) as things like ‘my child didn’t have time to get on the zoom call you organised as they have being doing their school work all day’ can make you feel the most inadequate parent ever. I’m also careful about what I read when I have the energy and time to do so. The internet is full of websites offering parental guidance, podcasts and ideas for parents getting through the crisis, but many of the ideas involve parental input; screens, on the other hand, don’t need parental input at all!
I admitted defeat to home schooling after three days but then to alleviate my guilt, I stayed up until midnight writing a list from the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV hubs of all the educational related programmes and nature programmes that would hopefully get them through the afternoons. What has kept me going have been the funny clips or photos that people send you on WhatsApp, be it the Israeli working mum’s rant about home schooling/working (watch it, it’s hilarious), the swearing Scottish dog, or the clip of the lady pouring wine over her breakfast cereal .
And as I often say to myself at difficult times, it is not about being a good parent but being a good enough parent (to which I’ve added the mantra ‘in the current circumstances’), which involves making sure we all put away phones and screens of any type during meal times, play games or football with the kids in the evening (which we embarrassingly have done very little of in the past), attempt the quizzes Granny and Grandpa have prepared, take out energetic Arthur together for our daily exercise, and even manage to help the children with the 1,000 piece jigsaw of a Marmite jar that’s been in the cupboard for many months.
The community where I live
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I had big plans for volunteering during the crisis. It started off well just before the lockdown, where I helped transform our local rugby club shop, which I help run on a Sunday, into a food bank, and I delivered leaflets to those in the neighbourhood as many have done round the country. We live in an amazing community where AFC Wimbledon has joined forces with Old Rutlishians rugby club and others to collect and deliver food to the food banks, the elderly, self-isolated and key workers. But being a working parent on my own with two ten year olds frustratingly means I cannot help for the three hour shifts at the shops or the food banks but instead I’ve been helping in the limited way I can, including making phone calls to let people know about an impending food delivery and getting shopping for some elderly neighbours. But again I’ve had to accept that my priority is to the children and the team who I manage.
I am very fortunate that I am part of an amazing and loyal team in a great firm, who have really come together at this time – it’s easy to take for granted the camaraderie of working with a lovely team and we have genuinely missed each other over the last few weeks. But, with regular Skype and Zoom calls where people are encouraged to be open about the personal challenges they are facing, and their mental and physical health (we have had five who have suffered from the virus) and daily communications and support from the firm’s management team, this has all helped. In one Skype call we were taken aback when one Senior Associate said every day she thinks of five positive things she has done (I was struggling to get to two at this point), but she immediately said one was having a shower and the other her glass of wine. I hope I keep the team amused with my trials and tribulations of life with two animals and two children, some of which are too appalling to include here as they don’t portray my parenting in the best light. Still, amazingly, despite the arguments, both of my children have said they much prefer me being around, especially during this last week when I’ve been ’on holiday’ and both seem relaxed about the lockdown.
As a divorced parent, whose former partner has always lived 200 miles away but with whom I have enjoyed a good relationship, I feel fortunate that I am not struggling with the kind of parenting issues that have arisen out of the current crisis. While many challenges have existed for other parents prior to the lockdown, some issues have now become acute, with the lockdown frequently being used by one of the parents to stop contact, be it because one parent is suspected of flouting the government rules for leaving the home, or one parent being a key worker. While a crisis can bring out the best in people, something I’ve certainly seen in my local community, family lawyers are currently also seeing behaviour which clients might not normally undertake, for example a client’s spouse moving her new partner and their children into the family home within two hours of the lockdown, with the result that one of her own children moved out.
The speedy and clear guidance of the Family Court has been impressive, including the President’s guidance dated 24 March, although the points in relation to contact with the non-resident parent is being used by either parent to support their position. It is clear that people are desperate for information and advice, which is difficult in the current climate and particularly with so many not eligible for legal aid. One of my colleagues wrote a blog on co-parenting during the coronavirus crisis and it is clear that this is one of immediate issues family law clients are faced with as the blog has seen an unprecedented number of views (nearly 15k) and a high number of resulting enquiries.
The judiciary has also been proactive in terms of remote proceedings with the family profession having had to quickly come to grips with remote proceedings. With financial hearings effectively postponed (see Mostyn J’s guidance issued for the Financial Remedies Court dated 17 March), the hearings that we have had have either been children hearings or private hearings, including FDRs or arbitration. Like many in the family law profession, the crisis has given arbitration the encouragement it needed, and while often it has suited one rather than the other partner to choose arbitration to speed things up, it is anticipated that a client’s refusal to arbitrate or at least find another form of dispute resolution such as mediation in the current climate may well be something a judge criticises them for in the future.
So far, our experience of remote hearings has generally been positive, with some clients finding remote mediation easier (not having to sit face to face) and others finding the options available on some of the online platforms better, including the ability to have ‘corridors’ for the barristers to meet or ‘breakout’ rooms (which inadvertently but maybe appropriately one of my colleagues called break down rooms in one hearing!). And at least lawyers and clients can wear their pyjama bottoms, have their pets near them or, failing that, have a cheeky drink to get through the day (a remote hearing is in fact more tiring than a face to face hearing). Everyone has had to get to grips quickly with the different on line platforms, with the main London family chambers leading the way – a sign of the times being a disagreement between two sets about which platform to use!
On a more serious and worrying note, is the awareness amongst family lawyers and now the public generally that domestic abuse has increased substantially as a result of the lockdown. With schools no longer being an important safe haven, so many children round the country will be witnessing domestic abuse, the long term effects of which cannot be underestimated – see my colleagues’ recent blog about self-isolation and what to do when the danger is at home. I take my hats off to those public family lawyers and social workers who are in the thick of it, particularly those who are juggling the stresses of home life as even for them, while as key workers the schools are open, child care, informal or formal, is virtually non-existent during lockdown.
This brings me to my final reflections after having had a few vital days off from home working and home schooling. In short, I recognise just how fortunate I and my children are. Constantly, I’m relieved that we are physically healthy – a particular worry for single parents is that they remain well and I am acutely aware of that with a brother who’s just returned home from a week’s stay in hospital due to the virus and a close friend battling blood cancer and the virus. I’m also relieved that, despite everyone thinking I was mad to get a dog in January from the Dogs Trust, it has transpired into the best decision as he helps us with our mental health and daily exercise. Having talked with other single parent lawyers with younger children, I am also grateful that my children are no longer toddlers. At least at the age of ten, I can leave them on their own to pop out to a shop and I can manage to do a good level of work, even if it means they are having far too much screen time.
Although there is currently no clear end in sight to these unprecedented and difficult times and many will be experiencing far greater challenges that I am, I am hopeful we will get through this stronger, more aware, more agile (as individuals and firms) and kinder to ourselves and others. I also hope that the appreciation shown for key workers will extend far beyond this crisis.
2nd April 2020
Shaili Desai, trainee solicitor at Streeter Marshall LLP, tells Women in Family Law about the anxieties of being furloughed as a result of COVID-19.
Having been a family paralegal for nearly two years, I was thrilled, to say the least, when I received the email confirming a noted local firm would love to have me on board as their new trainee. More than that, they would be willing to consider invoking ‘time to count’ for me, thereby reducing my training period to a year and half, rather than the standard two years. Little did I know that the opportunity to commence training in mid-March 2020, and to potentially qualify by next September, would all be disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These unprecedented times have seen a hit to many businesses, and law firms are no exception. The nation has been told to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives” and thus law firms are struggling to maintain a regular influx of new client enquiries. The inconveniences of working from home, technical and otherwise, have put a temporary strain on firms’ ability to offer comprehensive training to aspiring solicitors like myself.
It is for these reasons that I have been placed on an interim period of leave, also known as furlough leave, with the hope that I can officially commence my training contact when it is safe and viable to do so. I am more than thankful to my firm who have been nothing but supportive and encouraging through this time by offering a financial package over the government’s promised contribution, regularly keeping in touch with me and reassessing the situation on a weekly basis.
The struggle I am currently facing is how to spend my time productively now that I am not working. I have found a few things which have kept me going that may be useful to others in my position:
- Finding online webinars on the areas of family law that I find the trickiest to wrap my head around. This is especially useful in understanding financial remedy cases which deal with high net worth pension provisions, or multi-faceted business interests or income streams.
- Keeping up to date with case law. Whilst the outbreak of COVID-19 has limited the number of in-person hearings, there are still several being undertaken remotely.
- Keeping an eye out on the government’s and the judiciary’s guidelines on family law issues regarding COVID-19. Almost daily there are new publications or statements released on websites such as The Law Society Gazette, Legal Cheek, Family Law Weekly and other smaller blogs I find now and again from perusing my LinkedIn and Twitter feed. Of particular interest to me is a daily Q&A session run by Laura Naser of Pennington Manches Cooper LLP through her Instagram page “@thefamilylawyer” where she brings on experts in family law to comment on how COVID-19 is affecting the field. For example, how child contact arrangements can be handled in light of the ‘stay at home’ order, a session which featured WiFL’s very own Hannah Markham QC.
- Lastly, I am using this time to work on my personal goals, such as taking up yoga, continuing my passion for dance and revitalising my interest in creative writing.
I am one of many legal professionals who have been placed on furlough leave and it can be a daunting and anxious time for anyone. I am grateful for the support of my firm and family and it is not hard to imagine that someone in my position may not have such a strong support unit. My only advice would be to keep positive and stay focused. Whilst I may qualify later than expected, I am aiming to use this time to my advantage so that I can become a better lawyer upon qualification.
28th March 2020
Chloe Lee, pupil barrister at Spire Barristers, describes her experience of approaching second six whilst in the midst of a global pandemic.
In the past week we have all seen a huge change in the way that the family justice system is operating due to the COVID-19 crisis. The family justice system is now, in large, operating remotely and live court-based hearings are confined only to exceptional circumstances.
In the final days of my first-six I have attended hearings remotely via telephone and Skype. This is a completely new way of working for many, myself included. For the most part, these hearings have worked well and ran smoothly, but I have seen some teething problems. The situation is changing rapidly, and it is hard for everyone to keep up. It will take some time for us all to adapt to this new working environment.
Going into second six is daunting at the best of times, but during this global pandemic things feel uncertain and strange. As I approach second six I have a whole new set of worries I didn’t have just seven days ago. Will my internet be fast enough? What if my phone cuts out? Is my working space appropriate?
In preparation for my first week I have downloaded a number of video conferencing applications including Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom and I am frantically trying to get familiar with each programme. I am also trying to get up to speed with paperless working and to do so effectively I will probably have to purchase a second device.
Many barristers have said there has been a decrease in the level of work as hearings are being adjourned. It is a concern that I may have an emptier diary than I would have done if I had started last month, which will inevitably impact my level of income. Another concern is that I won’t have the opportunity to start in the same way many others have – “on my feet” in court. Instead, my first case will likely be over the phone or via Skype. However, I know I’m not alone in this and I know it won’t be forever.
I am extremely luckily to have a great support network around me. I’m having regular remote contact with my supervisor, co-pupils and other members of chambers, who are always available and willing to help no matter what. Circuit have also determined that no pupils are to attend court or conferences in person for the foreseeable future. My chambers have adopted this position and therefore this minimises the risks to my health. I’m also amazed by our clerks and staff, who have worked tirelessly to get us all set up for remote working.
Even during times of uncertainty, it is important to think what positives this change could bring. Whilst I don’t know what impact Covid-19 will have on my future at the Bar, what I can say is once this is all over there is likely to be a huge shift in how family cases are dealt with on a daily basis. Legal professionals and the courts are going to become familiar with the brilliant technology that is available and new models of working will materialise. This, I think, will be a change for the better.