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Tribunals in Court environment

 

Sarah-B
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Caseworker - Laura Pidcock MP

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Hello all, back under a new hat ...

Has anyone done any or know of any research into the impact on appellants of the holding of Social Security Tribunals in Court buildings and often courtrooms?

This move happened a few years ago now as a result of the Court service making best use of the court ‘estate’ and reducing the number of venues, but I cant remember whether objections were raised by the advice sector.

A number of people have mentioned to me how intimidating it feels, especially for disability benefit claimants who are caught up in the constant reassessment process anyway, how you feel ‘like a criminal’ going through the metal detectors and bag search and then seeing all the barristers floating around the place. 

     
Ruth_T
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A big problem is the seating in the reception area: a row of low, hard seats which are joined together and screwed to the floor so that they cannot be moved.

I always try to ask for the use of the witness room where the screen and remote camera are located, and which has proper upholstered chairs, but when the Court is sitting it’s often not available.  Also, on Court days, the place is exceptionally crowded and noisy, and clients with mental health difficulties tend to become agitated.

     
ClairemHodgson
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re bag search and security - tribunal buildings are supposed to do that as well, and EVERYONE has to have their stuff checked/x-rayed.  If people have been going to ordinary tribunal venues that don’t implement those security measures, then frankly, those venues should be dibbed in.  i’d rather have all that than take a risk of someone planting a bomb ...

whilst it is the case that as a solicitor i go to court a good bit more than most, i should have thought everyone understands the need for such security.

as for the seating etc - many court buildings have meeting rooms for use of reps/clients for private meetings.  always worth getting their early and bagging a room.

and frankly, it is in many ways worse in tribunal venues where there is less likely to be a private room and the seating is as bad as anywhere else.

as for court rooms themselves - i think they make a deliberate attempt to have the seating for counsel/solicitors as ergonomically unfriendly as possible.  the seating outside is usually better than that in a court room for those participating.

     
Mike Hughes
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Apologies in advance for the length of this Sarah.

There was an opportunity to comment during the consultation period for https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-court-tribunal-estate/supporting_documents/hmctsstrategyapproachconsultation.pdf

To take each point in turn:

Security - it’s inevitable that security levels have been upped at all venues but I suspect anecdotally that, as much as anything else, it’s the combination of going through security; going through security with barristers and people clearly attending criminal hearings and then finding yourself in a waiting area potentially shared with same and a formal court environment which impacts appellants rather than security itself or security and the formality.

Been doing this long enough to have represented for years in more informal tribunal venues. They were rarely fit for purpose and often led to disgruntlement that appellants thought they ought to be “somewhere better” and not in a community centre or a portakabin shared with community groups etc. So, swings and roundabouts to some extent. People always want the opposite of what they are presented with when in a stressful scenario. They also want their case heard away from anyone other than people in the same scenario.

The security itself is hugely variable and is less about bombs than knives and similar. Exceptions are repeatedly made. Stroppy judge who feels it ludicrous that anyone should contemplate them as a security risk; appellants in wheelchairs and so on. It just adds to a general sense of “one rule for them” etc.

Seating - wholly agree that it’s inapproprate but then it always was. I once had a morning of tribunals in Rhyl where the entire session was held using the seating from the childrens playgroup and a wallpaper table that was far too high for all of us. As a strategy for humanising the tribunal it was fantastic but my back hurt for days and I doubt the dignity of the three people on the other side of the table ever recovered. On a more serious note, if you check out the Salford WRS response to the above consultation we did explicitly comment on exactly this issue. Most notably we picked apart HMCTS examples of what they describe as work done to make venues accessible. It was despairingly hopeless, desperate stuff that had clearly not involved a single disabled user or user group and the people involved in it should have hung their heads in shame as so many basic things were visibly wrong in the pictorial examples of their fine work.

Most of the regular clerks at the CJC invite reps. to take appellants into the rarely occpied room used by POs or the always empty room next door but this is not a massive gain comfort wise and in any event it happens less and less as, once again, the HMCTS approach to staff numbers see clerks pulled about all over the place at short notice so that clerks are often working venues of which they may have limited knowledge and also working in full on “fed up” mode to boot.

As to the formality of the courts, I have mixed feelings on that. I’ve done community centres; portakabins next to the fish market etc. and I’m sure most of us have our share of horror stories. Courts are more formal than I would like but the layout is easy to explain and provided the dais isn’t in use it’s often far more pleasant and relaxed than the alternatives. The idea of tribunals being informal seems to have been lost in the mists of time but I remain unconvinced of the benefits even after 30 odd years. The increasing use of barristers in the role of tribunal judge seems to me to have led to a further reduction in informality as well as an obvious and significant increase in the number of cases where a lack of knowledge of basis social security caselaw combines with a certain misplaced confidence to provide a thoroughly inappropriate experience for appellants.

The extent to which a represented client is sufficiently relaxed to be able to fully participate in a hearing is largely down to their personality; any ill health and the extent to which we as reps. do our jobs properly. The situation is potentially different for unrepresented appellants but that’s an issue of judicial and clerk training.

For example, I have realised that tribunals use the dais in two circumstances.

1) The judge is the sort to whom being seen to be a judge is very important and so they sit there regardless of instructions to the contrary.
2) A panel member has a disability or impairment which makes access to the room easiest via a ramp up to the dais.

The day I hear a clerk explain that the reason the tribunal are up there is 1) or 2) above is the day I’ll know that competent judicial training is in place. Until then…

     
neilbateman
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I too have my doubts about returning to some of the Tribunal venues.  Many were awful for all the reason Mike gives.  Also, using non-court venues can be just as stigmatising for Appellants - usually no private waiting and interview rooms so sometimes having to discuss personal stuff in a waiting area with other people and/or often waiting areas in places where members of the public were, so Appellants felt they stood out for being “different”.

The best solution is for purpose built Tribunal venues (as there are in Fox Court, Sutton, Liverpool, Cardiff, etc).  But even those are far from perfect and the additional cost of converting more venues would be at the expenses of something else in the Tribunals system, especially as many venues are part-time.  Some of the Court venues are actually not bad - for example, Port Talbot.

     
John Birks
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Welfare Rights and Debt Advice, Stockport Council

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I doubt you’d get much sympathy with regard to uncomfortable seating, noisy/aggressive people, hostile environment and intrusive security if your client has been on an aeroplane anytime in the last ‘few’ years.