By Richard Nettleton, Trainee Solicitor and Hayley Mason, Senior Solicitor & Director
While the Coronavirus pandemic has produced very little in the way of good news for SEN parents, the new digital Hearing format of the SEND Tribunal is something that can be celebrated in that it has ensured that Hearings are going ahead on their first listing compared to the 75%+ cancellation rate we saw pre-coronavirus.
While advocates have had mixed views about the pros and cons of the new system, with the latest communication from the Tribunal confirming that digital hearings look set to stay at least until the end of September (and likely for the future) if you are faced with a digital Hearing, here are some tips we hope you will find useful...
1. Google Chrome – While a large majority already use Google Chrome as their native browser on their PC, Laptop or Tablet, ensuring you have this installed for a digital Hearing is a must. While Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox are well known brands and can access the Hearings, they do not provide the stability or reliability that Google Chrome does.
2. Bandwidth – The majority of parents/experts are likely to be accessing a digital Hearing from the comfort of their own home. While we hope this provides a comfortable and safe space for a Hearing (which we can appreciate is a welcomed relief to the large, overwhelming buildings hearings used to formerly be held in) it can prove problematic with WIFI connection. Without wishing to dwell on the technical side too much, the more devices you have actively connecting to your home WIFI, the slower the overall speed is. This does not apply to idle devices, so you do not need to switch off every device in the house but with children potentially at home, consider ensuring they are not streaming Youtube, Xbox, Disney + while you are attending the Hearing as this is likely to affect your connection. Top tip: try downloading games/videos first so the children can still watch them offline while you are attending the hearing.
3. Check your Tribunal Bundle – The digital copy of the bundle will be what the Tribunal panel use during your Hearing. When a copy of this is sent to you, ensure the Local Authority have included all your evidence inside it. It is also worth ensuring you know at what pages in Section C, the various parts of your evidence can be found for easy reference if asked by the panel (post it notes are very helpful). It is also worth checking that the evidence the LA have included are all documents you have seen before. If there is anything in the bundle that you are only seeing for the first time when served with the bundle, make the panel aware at the very start of your Hearing.
4. Late Evidence - If for some reason, you need to submit late evidence (and therefore need to request permission for it to be admitted into the proceedings if you are after the ‘further information’ date) the SENDT is operating a 5-day rule. This means you will need to ensure that the any late evidence has been submitted 5 working days before your Hearing (I.e. one week). You should receive the bundle 2 weeks before your hearing so do try to check it as soon as possible so if you realise something is missing so that you have enough time to get it to the Tribunal in advance.
5. Evidence on the day - If exceptionally you find yourself in a Hearing with the need to submit evidence or realise evidence is missing on the day, an e-mail can be sent to the Tribunal with the subject line reading ‘URGENT VIDEO HEARING IN PROGRESS’. This information will be prioritised by the clerks and will be forwarded to the Judge who is conducting the Hearing.
6. Witnesses – Whether you are legally represented or not, witnesses are a key component to any proceedings. Invariably like all human beings, they will come with different levels of technological skills. It is always worth checking with a witness before the actual day of your Hearing that they are prepared for the day and have a copy of the Notice of Hearing which contains the log in details. On the morning of the Hearing (for a 10am start), a Tribunal clerk will be available between 09:30-09:45 in the digital Hearing room where you and your witnesses can check you can log in ok and to help with technical queries. For a 2pm start the same session runs 13:30-13:45. In our experience, the clerks have been able to resolve most problems but if they cannot, all parties can access a telephone system to join the Hearing and participate verbally. It is well worth attempting to log in at 9:30 so that if you do have any difficulties they can be resolved and you do not have a mad panic if you cannot access the Hearing room at 10.00am.
7. Communication with Witnesses – Previously in a live Hearing situation, you would have been able to ‘pass notes’ to your experts or legal Counsel, or use one of the rooms in the court building you were located in to have a private discussion at adjournment breaks. It is highly recommended that before the day, you organise a way to communicate with your witnesses (i.e. a WhatsApp group/available conference line) and ensure everybody has the relevant details to hand. If you want to have a private conversation with your witnesses/Counsel and you are not sure whether you have been able to turn your microphone off at an adjournment break, moving to another part of your house to have a conversation is a low tech but effective means of ensuring nobody is listening who shouldn’t be.
8. Background – While this is nearly impossible in the home environment, if you do have a window you can face to ensure adequate lighting and a plain coloured wall you can also sit in front of, this is helpful for those on the hearing to focus on you and not your background. Other members attending the Hearing should not be so distracted, but we are all only human and this will ensure you remain the sole focus when you are speaking. I am sure we have all seen the articles about various government ministers and interesting items spotted in the background while being interviewed. If you do not have a plain wall you can position yourself in front of, a good tip is to also use a white bed sheet to cover any items in your background that may be distracting.
9. Test your tech in advance – There is nothing more annoying than trying to join the Hearing on the day and finding your microphone/camera isn’t working. If you know which device you will be using to attend the Hearing on the day (laptop/ipad/phone) etc, we would encourage you to ask a willing family member/friend to practice video calling them in advance. This will give you an opportunity to make sure your camera and microphone are working and gain confidence speaking. Your family/friend may also be able to advise the best place for you to stand or sit (to help with background above). Getting used to being on the camera will also help to reduce your nerves on the day if you are not used to being seen on the camera it can be quite daunting seeing yourself and others in the tiny boxes on the day.
*Update* - Following the release of this article, Jason Greenwood (SENDT Delivery Manager) has also made contact with us to suggest an additional tip which will allow users to test their technology before the day of the Hearing and may help.
If you visit https://join.meet.video.justice.gov.uk/default/ anytime before the day of your Hearing and login as ‘test call’ it will walk you through testing your microphone, camera and speakers and checking they work and place you in a test room for a minute or two. Half the battle with technology is knowing in advance, that the technology you have will work with other technology when needed so we hope this helps!
10. Don’t panic. Children running into the Hearing, dogs barking at the postman, cats jumping onto the keyboard – however hard we try we are all human and sometimes everything does not go to plan. Please do not panic. The Tribunal does understand that we are all managing these hearings from our home environments, so if it happens to you, take a deep breath, recompose, and try to pick up where you left off. If you do need
to take a short break to sort out an upset child, please simply ask for a short break rather than risking missing something important during proceedings.
While this is not a comprehensive list, we hope these tips help and provide some insight into the digital Hearings from a purely practical standpoint. It is also worth stating as one final tip, to try to remember to talk slowly - at a pace the Panel can follow as they will be taking notes and you don’t want a key point to be missed.
As referenced above, we know there are mixed feelings about the digital Hearings but at the present time, they are the only way for a matter to progress forward and we hope these tips assist you on the day.
If you do have a Hearing coming up in the near future, we hope it goes well and you get the outcome that is right for your child or young person.