What a year...

Gemma Wayman, Solicitor from our Court of Protection Department sums up an eventful, unique year and outlines how we have dealt with it

The year started like any other, with a commitment from our team at AH Solicitors to help people and their families navigate issues falling under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 or in relation to their Community Care Law matters.

The main change on the horizon was the planned implementation of the new Liberty Protection Safeguards that were due to replace the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards in Spring 2020, and we were readying ourselves for that as it would significantly change the law and approach taken by us when advising people bringing challenges under the amended Mental Capacity Act.

Our Rosie Williams was returning to practice after maternity leave and filling the shoes of Andrew Spooner as Head of department following Andrew moving to pastures new. Chelsea Cox was continuing to establish herself as a dedicated and powerful paralegal, though preparing for her own maternity leave later in the year. Sarah Ackland has been a constant throughout the year.

And then, a global pandemic was declared and our client group was immediately, dramatically and disproportionally impacted. We had to adapt, and fast, to ensure access to justice was maintained and that we were on hand to provide up to date advice to guide our clients and prospective clients through.

We closed our offices and all started working from home. Though we are used to home working, as this has always been positively supported at AH Solicitors and seen as a way to ensure our team have a good work/life balance, we, like many others, had to ensure we pulled together whilst working remotely, as well as continuing to reach our clients effectively and in person centred ways according to their individual needs.

Fortunately, as home working was already common practice, our IT systems were already equipped to meet our paper free policy, with use of our online case management system meaning we can work on the go, securely accessing all we need so we can serve our clients efficiently and fully.

The Court of Protection swiftly adopted remotely held hearings that took place by telephone and video calls and, though some cases experienced an initial delay in being heard whilst changes were made, we were impressed with how the sector pulled together and got arrangements in place from the outset.

The government issued guidance from the Department of Health and the Law Society worked with the profession to support and assist in the changes. The Legal Aid Agency, whom provide funding for much of our work, introduced practice guidance and developed systems so we could still receive new instructions from, and secure funding for, worried people and families in crisis allowing us to represent them in matters before the Court.

Our counterparts in other firms and statutory bodies all pulled in the same direction to sustain fairness, ensure justice, and allow us to continue to progress our client’s cases. The office of the Official Solicitor, from whom we receive instructions, went above and beyond to act as litigation friend for those most in need.

The profession, and especially those working in the area of public law, human rights, and mental capacity, came together and we listened, shared, and drove the changes needed to make sure we could still operate for the wider needs of our clients. Training was kindly offered, most often free of charge, through webinars from barrister chambers and forums, and practice guidance was coming out, often as quickly as rules and regulations were changing.

It is fair to say that, like most sectors and professions, we initially thought the change would be temporary with us maybe just needing to ‘manage’ for a few weeks, perhaps a couple of months, and we would get through it in time for summer. Alas, it quickly became apparent that that was not to be and, as we reflect on the year, we take pride in our firm, our colleagues, and our sector for learning how to uphold the law in times of immense challenge and uncertainty.

Though there has been good positive learning to take from all this, we equally recognise that our usual ways of practice, including visits to our clients in their own homes, care homes, face to face meetings, court hearings, and the participation of ‘P’ has been difficult and, at times, impossible. Practicing in Mental Capacity Law and Community Care Law at this time has been hard to say the least.

Families have not been able to visit as freely as before and we have seen a downturn in cases brought by relevant person’s representatives. Sadly, the restrictions that had to be imposed to protect the wider public during the pandemic has meant that vulnerable people would have potentially missed out on legal representation when they still needed it most.

However, despite the difficulties we have faced this year, our resolve to make a difference has not been diminished; in fact, it has grown. We have built our team to now proudly include Hannah Litchfield-Brennan, Milly Kidner and Gemma Wayman, in preparation for a return to ‘normal’ and for the delayed implementation of the Liberty Protection Safeguards now due in 2022.

Whilst the second lockdown did bring new challenges, there was certainly a feeling of ‘Been there, done that’ meaning we felt more prepared for the adaptions that needed to be made to client meetings and court hearings, all whilst our home working continued.

As we focus on looking forward, our team at AH Solicitors are ready and waiting to advise and assist our local community in the Southwest in a range of legal matters including but not limited to personal welfare, deprivation of liberty, and community care concerns.

We look forward to meeting those who need our help, and we hope to use all that we have learned this year to be an even more effective and efficient team for our clients. With a widespread vaccination programme about to start, we hope ‘normal’ is not too far away.