Petrified by court? Then arm yourself with the skills you need

Trainer and lawyer Shefali Shah will be helping social workers overcome their fear of court at Community Care Live London in September

by Shefali Shah

What was your reason for becoming a social worker? Was it to make a difference, improve the lives of vulnerable adults and children in need and offer support and guidance when required? Or was it so that you could attend court and be subjected to hostile and vigorous cross examination? I presume there are many more of you in the first camp then the second.

I also presume that even if you knew that some of your cases could lead to court proceedings, that you may not have predicted how many.

Ministry of Justice figures published last month show a significant increase in the number of court cases relating to children’s or adult social care:

  • Both public and private children law applications have increased by 11% since 2016
  • Applications under the Mental Capacity Act have increased by 8% since 2016 and orders granted have increased by 36%.
  • Deprivation of liberty cases have increased by 43% since 2016 and orders granted have doubled.

What does this mean for you as social workers? Well, to put it bluntly increases in the number of court proceedings means an increased likelihood of going to court.

More pressure for social workers

The increase in the number of court proceedings is combined with a focus on ensuring proceedings are undertaken without delay. This is particularly relevant for children’s practitioners, as public law care cases must be concluded within the statutory time frame of 26 weeks, increasing the pressure on already time-poor social workers.

My next question is that if you were told that you now have to prepare to attend court on your case, how many of you would be excited at the prospect of having to give oral evidence in the witness box and then be cross-examined? Again I can make a confident presumption that not many of you would and that the majority of you would feel the opposite, and have feelings of anxiety and fear.

This is all completely understandable. To feel positive about your court appearance you need the tools to arm yourself with the knowledge and guidance so that you can present in court with confidence. The best way to do this is to remember the five Ps of successful court appearance: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Preparation is key to being able to successfully manage your court attendance and here are some tips to assist with demystifying the court process and help you to gain confidence.

  • The preparation starts before that actual court hearing date. Start it in the office with file preparation, by ensuring that your file, whether electronic or paper, is in good order. Make sure your file recordings are written up and filed away.
  • Ensure you re-read your court statement or report in advance of the hearing, as well as any other key court documents filed by the other parties. Remember that giving evidence is not a memory test, as you will have a copy of your statement in the court witness bundle which will be in the witness box. However, re-reading the statement beforehand will remind you how you have set out your evidence, and you will find it easier to refer to when giving evidence.
  • Do not leave these task for the night before your court appearance – do them in advance so you have time to seek assistance or guidance from your manager or legal representative.
  • Preparation also includes your personal preparation; remember, first impressions count. Ensure that you have your clothes for court ready in advance, including your shoes. This may sound basic but it is equally important. Presenting in a smart and professional way presents you as the confident professional expert that you are.
  • You have to accept that giving evidence can make you feel anxious, stressed and even nervous. This is because you are stepping into an unfamiliar environment. So one way to assist yourself is to manage what is in your control, like the file and personal preparation.

To learn more about the 5 Ps of successful court appearance, come along and hear me speak at Community Care Live London on 27 September in the Legal Learning Hub, where you can find out how to develop your practical court room skills and see cross examination of a witness in the mock courtroom trial.

I do hope to see you there.

Shefali Shah is a solicitor and national trainer at Kingsley Knight Training. She is the author of Key Changes to Family Justice (CoramBAAF, 2016).

Shefali is one of a number of expert trainers, practitioners and leaders speaking at Community Care Live London on 26-27 September. Register now for your free place

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