Ever seen Brazil (1985)? Either way, picture a dystopian society ruled by an oppressive and totalitarian government, which, with the exception of a rebel air conditioning specialist or two, the masses are too brainwashed by consumerism to do anything about. This is the world painted by Brazil, a film I had the pleasure of seeing only recently.
It is against this somewhat Orwellian backdrop that Sam Lowry, our main character and a Central Services employee, reveals to us the many pitfalls of a society over-dependent on bureaucracy. The most extreme example in the film is that a printing error which changes the surname “Tuttle” to “Buttle” results in the wrong man being arrested and accidently killed during interrogation. Why? Well, the omniscient state had no record of Mr. Tuttle having poor Mr. Buttle’s heart condition. Sam is then given the task of presenting Mr. Buttle’s widow with the bad news alongside a reconciliatory cheque, although not before she has signed a form to confirm receipt of it!
Fortunately, we live in a considerably more liberal society than the one presented in Brazil. Unfortunately, I still found myself identifying similarities between the administrative nightmare painted in Brazil, and the one that exists in our present Court system.
I encountered one example in the context of a contentious probate matter, in which we represent a Defendant. Curious as to why the next Hearing we expected in the litigation had not been listed, my supervising Partner Ashley called the Court and was told that the fault lay with the Claimants for sending their amended Claim Form to all parties, but not to the Court. Since the Claim Form removed one Defendant and added two new ones, it was an important document for the Court to see, so as to make sense of the documents submitted by the other parties (including the newly added Defendants). Ashley wrote to the Claimants reminding them to file their amended Claim Form.
The following week, we still had not received Notice of the long-awaited Hearing, so I gave the Court a call. I wanted to find out whether the amended Claim Form had finally been filed with the Court. When I eventually got through to someone, they were adamant that the reason the Hearing date had not been set was actually because not all of the Defendants had filed their Defences yet. As the e-mail I asked these Defendants to send to the Court confirmed, this was nonsense, because they had already filed documents telling the Court that they were not going to be filing Defences.
Later that week, I called the Court again and spoke to someone who transferred me to another department, only for that other department to transfer me back to someone different at the original department! This time, I was told that that the Claimants had essentially confused the Court’s filing system so much that the name of one of the Defendants appeared in place of the name of one of the Claimants! Fortunately, we are not so embroiled in bureaucracy that I could not correct the Court’s administrative confusion with a clear conversation, which resulted in the case finally being handed up to a Judge to set a date for the next Hearing.
Another example was in the context of family proceedings. More specifically, an Application for a Non-Molestation Order, which is a Court Order that prohibits a person from behaving in a violent, threatening or harassing way towards the person who applies for the Order, or a child on whose behalf the Application is made. Often such Orders are applied for urgently, without giving notice to the person the Order is sought against. So only the Applicant (the person applying for the Order) would be present at the first Hearing. This procedure often results in a second Hearing being listed afterwards, to give the Respondent (the person responding to the Applicant’s Application for an Order) a chance to tell the Court their side of the story.
In this particular case, the second Hearing was given a date when the Respondent was abroad. So it needed to be given a new date to make sure that both parties could be there. Sound simple so far? I’d have thought so too, but sadly it took numerous telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence with Court staff before I could give my client a new Hearing date, a whopping 6 weeks after the original one.
The administrative ineptitude which has become woefully intrinsic to our Court system might be considered farcical, but as Mrs Buttle reminds us in Brazil, there is an emotional cost to these administrative inefficiencies. I have learnt that an important part of our job involves shielding clients from this as best as possible, by being able to explain when and why long waits occur and recognise when they shouldn’t so that issues can be redressed.