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Since the first version of the PLO came into being, way back in 2008, the parties have been supposed to convene an advocates meeting before the Case Management Conference (now Case Management Hearing) and Issues Resolution Hearing. Two per case. Usually with three advocates who are being paid by the Legal Aid Agency (mother, father, child) - occasionally more, and the local authority, who sometimes brief it out, and sometimes get paid.
Since that version of the PLO came out, 50,000 sets of care proceedings have been issued. That's 100,000 advocates meetings. 3000,000 fee notes.
Nearly half a million pounds, of public money, all being spent on advocates meetings.
Sir David Norgrove, when reporting on the Family Justice Review, spoke about the lack of management information in the family justice system. Who else would spend half a million pounds on something without any analytical data about whether it was working or not (with the possibly exception of the British Government and Tamiflu).
What are they supposed to achieve? Well, it is all about making sure that cases get to court with certainty and clarity about everyone's positions, that all the requisite letters are dotted or crossed, respectively.
In practice, the quality of an advocates meeting varies wildly. Sometimes everyone turns up with their clients having filed their evidence on time, with clear instructions about the key issues in the case and the parties can identify what they agree on and what orders they invite the court to make and where there are areas of disagreement what evidence will be needed to resolve those disagreements in due course.
More often than not, in the writer's experience, an advocates meeting (known disparagingly as ‘an avocado meeting' probably because they are slippery and too many are very bad for you) tends to be crowbarred into counsel's diary at the end of a very long day when concentration is wavering.
Perhaps the case is over-running. Nobody in court ever says: 'Sorry Your Honour, I've got to go, there's an advocates meeting in ten minutes'. So the early portion is sitting and waiting for everyone to arrive. Biscuits may be nibbled, water may be sipped. Nobody wants to talk about the case whilst we wait, for fear of having to say it all over again.
The latecomer arrives, in a flurry of papers. They may immediately reach for the chocolate biscuit that everyone else had been leaving out of politeness.
'Let's make a start', somebody says - usually the local authority, they are the bossyboots of the universe. 'Are the parents putting forward any family members as alternative carers?'
Gazes are lowered. Shoes are looked at. Responses are not forthcoming.
Finally, an answer: 'Haven't been able to speak to my instructing solicitor about this yet, but we can thrash it out at Court tomorrow.'
Moving on to the next topic: 'Is anyone seeking any expert evidence?'
Someone will say: 'I was thinking of Doctor Hackenbush', but there will be no CV, or timescales, or questions. Someone else will say that they recently had a bad experience with Doctor Hackenbush and suggest instead Rufus T Firefly. Someone will say that Rufus T Firefly is dead, isn't he? Someone else heard that he shot an elephant in his pyjamas.
No progress is made with that. We can thrash it out at court tomorrow.
Do we need any disclosure - what's the parents position on the central allegation? Nobody knows, but luckily there's a ready answer - we can thrash it out at court tomorrow.
In the interests of fairness, sometimes the parents' advocates will ask the local authority something about contact, and whether it can be moved to a Wednesday, and whether it would be possible for the contact to incorporate a visit to Rhinoland. The local authority representative will not know the answer to this, and it will have to be dealt with at court tomorrow.
And so the long day wears on, and eventually everyone runs out of steam having resolved nothing except that there's a big long list of things to be thrashed out at court tomorrow. Luckily the last order told us all to get there an hour early.
Somebody once said that the only thing a meeting every truly achieves is to fix the date of the next meeting.
Could we not find a better use in the beleaguered family justice system for half a million quid? I'd rather that the parents got to have a conference with their counsel and following that, a short position statement was circulated.
Lovely as you all are, we can't keep on meeting like this.
Andrew Pack is a care lawyer at Brighton and Hove City Council and their in-house advocate. He has also represented parents in care proceedings.
He is the creator and author of the Suesspicious Minds child law blog, which deals with public law, private law, social work, serious case reviews and Court of Protection cases - www.suesspiciousminds.com. Andrew can also be contacted via Twitter at @suesspiciousmin.
Andrew was shortlisted for the Family Law Commentator of the Year Award at the 2013 Family Law Awards.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.
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