My first day in court

family law

On my very first day of being a qualified solicitor, with all exams and training behind me, or so I thought, I was sent by a partner in the Leeds firm I was then working for to Bradford Magistrates Court in West Yorkshire to see a client in the cells. I had been articled to the senior partner of the firm and spent my time as a trainee assisting with his contentious commercial litigation claims, complex conveyancing matters and a few high profile divorces. In those days lawyers didn’t specialise nearly so much as they do now, so overall I’d been very fortunate and had an excellent training in civil cases. But I’d never dealt with a criminal case before. I had never gone near a criminal court room in my training.  I was assured it was straight forward (famous last words) and off I went to Bradford. “Tra la la la la.”

I went into the custody cells to see the client, ignoring as best I could the loud voices of police and prisoners shouting and swearing at each other in rather grim conditions that I was very unfamiliar with and, with my mind fixed on the job, spoke to the client in his cell. He was pretty hung over. He was bedraggled, leaning over the table while I sat quite gingerly on the other side, writing my notes. He couldn’t say very much. He was a bit too drunk. I read from the charge sheet that he had no fixed address and no job. He was in custody for (drunkenly) beating up his wife pretty badly and thus putting her in hospital. He was also in breach of a bail condition not to go near her, because he was also on bail for attacking her a few weeks earlier. I filled in the legal aid forms and asked him, because I thought I should from what I remembered of my criminal law, whether he wanted me to apply for bail and if so what he wanted me to say. I hoped he would say no and that he would happily be remanded into the custody of HM Prison Armley in Leeds, but that was obviously wishful thinking on my part. Instead, I remember him saying “Yes I do. That’s your job. I want to get out of here”. So I smiled at him and said that I’d do my best, leaving the cells no better informed or clearer in my mind what I was going to actually do, than when I walked in.

The next thing I noticed as I walked into the large court room, were some sharp suited ‘hot-shot’ lawyers of the day, sitting in the court with piles of files in front of them, making jokes and a lot of noise which stopped when I announced to the clerk who I was and why I was there. “This won’t take long” I heard one of the lawyers say to the clerk as they called my case on, and all of those men just sat staring at me as the client was brought into the dock and I stood up.

I think it was at that point I suddenly thought, “I’ve no idea at all what to say.” So I said “Your Worships I’m instructed to apply for bail”, smiled at them desperately and sat down again. Bail was duly refused, the client was taken into custody and the whole thing lasted a few minutes.

There was literally nothing I could think of to explain why the client should have his bail. He didn’t deserve bail but at the same time, I’ve never, ever forgotten the horror of it. There I was: a qualified solicitor way out of my depth for all the world to see. Actually, one of the more experienced lawyers was very nice. “There was nothing to say” he said – but who knows? A more experienced advocate would have at least put up some sort of an argument. Or been firmer with the client. For a while afterwards the thought of that experience, making a complete fool of myself, made me feel physically sick. I was right at the beginning of my career on the very first day I was qualified and the only way I could rationalise it was by telling myself it was make or break time. Neither the lawyer who sent a manifestly inexperienced young lawyer to court, and was sitting sniggering behind his desk when I returned, nor the experience itself was going to break me. But it did cause me a hell of a lot of stress for a long while afterwards and made me realise that qualified lawyers were only one day further on than non-qualifieds and there was still an awful lot to learn. In fact there always is a lot to learn. You never can say you know it all and those who do think like that are fools.

Thirty-odd years later I’ve tackled complex cases in court rooms, appeared regularly live on the media before millions of people and that clueless girl no longer exists except in my memory. We ensure all our newly qualifieds, and indeed all our lawyers, are treated with care.  They aren’t overloaded, and there is always a team around them to help. I hope none of them ever get to the stage where they crack. But when I read of the stresses and the dire consequences suffered by so many lawyers who, for many reasons, let their work get on top of them and cannot brush it off and handle it, I fully understand why they can and do crack under pressure. Some do terrible things and pay a heavy price. So I feel a profound sense of gratitude that even during periods of the greatest stress and anxiety, handling huge cases on my own when I’ve had to work out what to do next and know the entire case depended on what I did, it didn’t happen. Cracking up, thankfully never happened to me.

So, from my perspective, there but for the grace of… go we all.

I was reminded of my experience today after reading two pieces from legal professionals. The first was written by barrister Mathew Scott and I highly recommend a read. Ostensibly about a barrister taking instructions on a similarly hopeless case it is a brilliant Brexit satire. The second is by barrister Gordan Exall, also well worth reading, about the stresses of being a lawyer. I’ve tried to dovetail both of them together.

Photo of the Bradford Magistrates Court by Tim Green via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

Marilyn Stowe

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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9 comments

Vincent McGovern - January 5, 2017 at 4:44pm

A very informative article and it echoes with the ring of truth. As an example of stress imagine being a Litigant In Person at your first hearing in a family court where you have already been stitched up by Non Molestation and Injunction plus Prohibited Steps preventing you from remaining in the family home or seeing your children, especially if you were their primary carer, all of which were obtained Ex Parte (without notice to you).

The difference between feeling confused and foolish is as nought compared to the difficulty of being an unrepresented litigant at a 30 min hearing fighting against the forces of the state who provide the allegating mother with Legal Aid funded representation to determine your future relationship with the children. Lambs to the lions is about the best comparison. Therein lies the real horror of a hopelessly biased family law system.

I know of many including lawyers who have succumbed to the stress, some with terrible finality. Your drunken wife beater has no sympathy from me, refusing him bail was correct decision by the court and I don’t see how you could have done anything with a different result.

keith - January 5, 2017 at 5:11pm

One of the problems that seems clear is that many Solicitors and Barristers become too laid back and loose their drive to win in court for their clients. especially as the courts are overflowing the work just keeps rolling in like a conveyor belt even if solicitors hardly ever win a case.
ive heard it said that solicitors & barristers on Legal Aid rates just dont put the effort in and from my 18 month experience with the family courts i came to the same conclusion. this is a big problem that needs to be addressed. it nees to become more like the olympic games of Law. you dont get the gold unless you really go for it.

Tara Knight - January 5, 2017 at 5:25pm

An excellent article and a commendable role model for others on supporting staff effectively and being able to reflect on your own skills and development to become the skilled advisor you now are… I had a similarly difficult experience in a criminal advice case many years ago.

Joy Cleaver - January 6, 2017 at 12:16pm

I enjoyed reading this. I had a very similar experience when I was newly qualified and I had a court hearing where I had a very cocky aggressive solicitor on the other side who put the fear of god in me. I don’t know where I got my nerves and attitude from but it made me a better person and it also made me determined to be a good family lawyer. I have found that the key for productive court hearings is preparation and I always ensure I am fully prepared! I feel sorry for the litigants in person but I feel more sorry for the arrogant and rude lawyers and barristers who I have been up against who just seem to want to show off, inflame matters and incur unnecessary costs rather that doing a good job for the client. This, I find, very frustrating. Good article.

keith - January 8, 2017 at 2:36pm

“I feel sorry for the litigants in person but I feel more sorry for the arrogant and rude lawyers and barristers who I have been up against who just seem to want to show off, inflame matters and incur unnecessary costs rather that doing a good job for the client. This, I find, very frustrating”

Joy i agree with you 100%.
justice is not being done in the family courts around 90% of the time
and thats a serious problem but the Govt seem to ignore it.

Joy Cleaver - January 9, 2017 at 9:43am

Totally agree!!

JamesB - January 6, 2017 at 3:15pm

Its a strange place. I have been laughed at by Judges and Barristers a few times. I suppose that’s par for the course.

It reminds me of a situation in Las Vegas (another JamesB reollection coming up). We were on a coprorate do, in an entertainment place and I was about to try their automatic Baseball machine. Then the power failed and lights dimmed.

The machine for serving (pitching?) the ball worked and a woman came in and said they were closing and to get out. I thought, may as well have one go. So, I took a swing and nearly impaled myself on the handle of the bat. They are a lot longer than rounders bats. She then couldn’t stop laughing. Thing is I never played Baseball or anything like it before and it hurt for weeks afterwards my pride and tummy.

With re to Judges and Barristers laughing, one of which was me threatening a barrister to enforce a contact order, to which she couldn’t stop herself laughing. Another one was me saying I was very upset about how much money was being wasted on acrimonious proceedings to which the Judge said he could see that and started laughing and asked the other side to comment, to which I stood up and started to prowl round to the other side and solicitor, whereupon I noticed it was going quiet and the court were looking at me through the corner of their eyes. Then I realised this isn’t the posturing barristers do, even though at school its what we did when others or ourselves made the insults like the lawyers do. So, I either went through with it and grabbed the solicitor , or sat down, both options made me look and feel silly. Also, another occasion I walked out when being called names by barrister and Judge sneered. I suppose you don’t employ a cooper to fix a horseshoe.

I suppose the question is how to learn without making mistakes. I suppose the answer is with practice and role playing. I have been left looking the fool many times in my life, but I find it better to try than not to. I read Brian Moore’s autobiography recently and as he says his PE teacher said to him there are those who try and those who do not but laugh at those that do. I suppose we each fall into both brackets. I also suppose as a lawyer in court it better to say too little than too much, however it is important to say something and your example reminded me how I failed in court.

Faced with malicious accusations, I lost my temper and went quiet and walked out and that was not the way to do it. False cases are proven on balance of probability without evidence if no conflicting argument. Life can be silly. People can win with nonsense, I have seen barristers do it day in day out.

That said the only time I really lost in court was when I was unable to make the hearing and was the only time a barrister could make his arguments sound true as he had noone to laugh at it. I frequently laughed at the barristers and solicitors representing my ex wife. Like a barrister explaining how she would find it so hard to live without x amount of money which was untrue as she had a trust fund etc.

keith - January 8, 2017 at 2:31pm

its good of you to be so honest and tell the rtuth about whats going on in the family courts.
its certainly not british justice most of the time thats for shure.

Yinka - January 27, 2017 at 8:21am

Very interesting and insightful article and so true a minder never to forget

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