Today I am going to talk about round table meetings during Court of Protection proceedings. Or RTMs as they are commonly referred to. They are a very valuable part of the process, but when invitations go out, I do get people calling me up to ask about what the meeting is for, and what they’ll be asked etc. So this is my attempt to get something down in writing, that can be available to whoever needs it.
Now the thing to remember is that proceedings in the Court of Protection are much more investigatory than most court proceedings. That means that most of the time, the court is primarily concerned with getting the best and most complete evidence before it, in order for it to make a decision. So most hearings are about what further information the parties consider is needed, who is going to provide it and when. As is have said before, this makes Court of Protection proceedings a lot less adversarial than most people are expecting.
I am old enough to remember what proceedings were like before round table meetings became the norm. I worked in local authority then, and it was infuriating. We’d be in the days leading up to the hearing thinking “we might get a final decision today” and then we’d get a position statement from P’s representative saying “we need X, Y and Z and we want it as soon as possible”. This was so infuriating because if P’s representatives had told us a few weeks ago that that is what they wanted, we’d probably have been able to provide it for the hearing. But these position statements often arrived the morning of the court hearing, and there really wasn’t much we could do about it then.
It worked the other way too, sometimes, with the local authority having options or updating information but not sharing it with the other parties until quite late in the day. And we would just all get pretty darn irritated with each other.
And that is, in essence, why round table meetings are now commonplace. They allow the parties to share information and raise issues far enough in advance of hearings that progress can keep moving forward without needing the judge to tell us so. Because judges are busy people, and if parties can sort it out amongst themselves, then judges can free up time for the more contested cases.
Invitations to round table meetings will generally go to all of the parties to the proceedings, and their legal representatives. Not usually barristers though, just solicitors, unless the matter is particularly contentious or includes particularly complex legal issues.
Beyond that, it depends on the case, but you might find someone from P’s care provider there, and perhaps their advocate. Family members who aren’t parties to the proceedings might also be invited. P might attend too, if they want to and attending isn’t going to cause them any kind of distress.
Indeed, back in the day, these meetings would often take place at P’s care home (if they lived in one) to make it easier for them to attend. Now these meetings are almost always virtual, but often support workers for P can support them to attend virtually.
P might not be there for the whole meeting, if they don’t want to be, or if some of the issues to be discussed are particularly triggering for P. Often P will join at the start, or at the end, give their views, ask the questions they want to ask, and not get involved when the lawyers start talking about draft orders.
The attendance list will usually be discussed in advance. This is particularly important in some cases because the parties wil only have permission to share information from the proceedings with certain people, which can lead to some work for the lawyers as to who knows what. This is especially the case of there are independent expert’s reports, for example, but that’s a topic for another day.
In addition to sharing the attendance list, an agenda will usually be shared. As a general rule, the lawyer for whoever is the applicant (i.e. the person who made the application) will be responsible for preparing this agenda. In most s21A cases, this will be P’s lawyer, but in other cases it may be the local authority’s lawyer, or the CCG or NHS Trust’s lawyer. If the applicant doesn’t have a lawyer, then there’s a bit of a bun fight, but one of the lawyers will take this on.
So if you are attending an RTM, then do ask for the agenda, and do read it. If there is a topic that you want to discuss that isn’t on the agenda, you can ask for it to be added. As long as it is relevant to the proceedings, you aren’t likely to get much opposition. Or you can raise that issue in the ever -present ‘any other business’ section.
But reading the agenda will give you an insight in to what the parties, particularly the applicant, think the issues are. Which means you can prepare answers to some of the likely questions in advance
If you have a lawyer, talk it through with them. Once we’ve done a few of these, we get pretty good at predicting the questions that might be asked, so we can usually suggest to you things that you should try to find out before the meeting.
But if you don’t have a lawyer, there is no need to panic. RTMs are about sharing information, they’re not an interrogation or cross-examination. No one is trying to catch you out. So “I’m sorry, I will have to get back to you on that” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Likewise, when a party does have legal representation, you’ll hear quite a lot of “I’ll have to take instructions on that”.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can avoid every question, or say whatever you want. These meetings are still part of the legal process and the parties will note what is being said and how it is said. So if you are a family member, it is always advisable to try to be as cooperative as you can in these meetings. If you don’t, then another party who doesn’t agree with you might suggest to the court that you are being disruptive, evasive and generally unreasonable. You aren’t obliged to say anything, but that doesn’t mean implications won’t be drawn if you are not seen to be trying to work with the other parties. It is perfectly alright to disagree, but there’s a way to do that without being perceived as unnecessarily difficult.
The same goes for social workers and other professionals. Nobody expects you to have all of the answers, but if you can’t answer simple questions, or are working off out of date information then it can undermine your position. Much of the principles I set out in my post about written evidence will apply.
And don’t forget, RTMs are minuted. That means that one of the lawyers is taking a note of what everybody says. This will usually be the lawyer who prepared the agenda and made the arrangements. Or someone from their office, if they have the luxury of being able to get a lawyer and a paralegal or trainee at the meeting. I, myself, have got very used to being chair, and minute-taker at once (as well as peacekeeper, jargon translator and any other role needed to keep things progressing).
Those minutes are not usually a word for word record, but an in-depth summary of the discussions and who said what. After the meeting, the minutes will be typed up and shared with all attendees for comment. After everyone has agreed the minutes (or after it’s been a week a no one has raised any issues) those minutes will then be filed with the court. That means the judge WILL see them and parties WILL refer to them, which is why it is best to be at least somewhat prepared and not come in shouting and screaming, no matter how acrimonious the relationships may be.
Precisely what is discussed in the meeting will vary from case to case, but they will usually start with everyone introducing themselves, and then an update on how P has been from either their social worker, key worker, case manager or sometimes themselves. Any reduction or increase in need, changes in behaviour, significant events such as injury or illness will be mentioned so that everyone is aware of the current circumstances.
They will usually end with a discussion about when the next hearing is and what that hearing will entail. For example, it might mean a discussion about the length of the hearing and the issues the judge will be asked to decide upon, or it might mean a conversation about what further evidence is needed and the timeframes for the same. If there is broad agreement about what the next steps will be, then the lawyers will start discussing a draft order and vacating the hearing (which is when the parties all agree what order they want the judge to make, and there isn’t a need for an attended hearing and the judge just considers all of the papers and then makes the order as agreed, or with minor changes).
In s21A cases, there will be a lot of discussion about what alternative arrangements are available, whether there is enough clarity about risks assessments, plans and strategies. Whether P is getting the support they need generally might come up, or specific aspects of that care like community access, activities etc.
In other proceedings, it’s very much dependant on what the issues are.
And that’s pretty much all there is to say about round table meetings.
They can seem intimidating but aren’t anything to be too stressed about. If you have a lawyer, they’ll generally direct things and ask questions on your behalf. They’ll also step in if you are floundering (we’re nice like that). If you’ve not got a lawyer, then there’s still no need to panic. The other lawyers are obligated to try to help you understand what is happening so will make special effort to explain things to you. So if you have questions or are unsure about something, then do feel free to ask (or even contact one of the lawyers before or after the meeting). Whilst they can’t advise you on your case, they can and should explain the process to you. Most of us working in the Court of Protection are fairly approachable. It’s not a jurisdiction that attracts lots of hard-nosed argumentative types.
And hopefully this post helps a bit
In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I used to work for, or the organisation I now work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of either that local authority or organisation