Bridget Graham qualified as a social worker in 1982 and was appointed to the Care Standards Tribunal in 2002, then was to the cross-ticketed to the Mental Health Tribunal a few years later.
“During my many years as a social worker I have worked in a number of different fields including child protection, children with disabilities, foster care, mental health, vulnerable adults, juvenile justice, generic emergency out of hours work, Independent Reviewing Officer, complaints investigation, university lecturing and on-line tutoring – which has given me a very broad base from which to approach tribunal work.
“I applied internally to be a specialist member of the ‘Pilot Scheme’ for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Tribunal hearings, at which recommendations were for health and social care as well as orders in education. I felt ready to apply for the role because of my extensive experience of court-based family, regulatory and tribunal work, where it is vital to understand and be able to apply the law, get to the heart of complex cases and assess risk.
“When there was an internal competition to sit on all SEND and Disability Discrimination cases I applied. I was successful probably because of my experience working with children with special educational needs and disabilities and my many years as a school governor.
“I applied because I found tribunal work stimulating, rewarding and enjoyable, and because I wanted to expand my tribunal portfolio with a view to sitting on more tribunals after I retired from my job as a Children’s Guardian with Cafcass.
“I was originally appointed to the First Tier Tribunal through a JAC competition and found the experience quite challenging but at the same time very exciting. The process seemed to be very fair and transparent, with the Tribunal Service welcoming a wide range of people of different backgrounds, ages and professions.
“I absolutely love sitting on tribunals but especially in SEND as I feel I am directly helping children with special educational needs and disabilities within the remit of the law, ensuring they have been treated fairly and legally by local authorities. It is a real privilege to be at the heart of decision-making that will affect children and young people’s lives for ever and to help them achieve their full potential. This is certainly the most important factor to me, but I also love the role because it is extremely flexible and, as long as you fulfil the minimum requirements, you can offer as many or as few days for sitting as you like.
“Although I am now past state pension age I usually sit on tribunals three or four days a week and tie this in with my grandparent childminding role and other pieces of independent social work. I love meeting fellow Judges and Specialist Tribunal Members and working as part of a team of two or three on a Panel, not having to make decisions on my own, but being able to contribute my opinion based on my experiences and professional background. It always surprises me how much agreement there is at the end of a hearing between members of the Panel.
“The SEND tribunal is relatively small therefore I know most of the Judges and Members,. Colleagues are invariably friendly, supportive and respectful and it’s so interesting to hear their opinions and learn about their professional and personal backgrounds. The work is intellectually challenging, and members are now able to sit up to the age of 75.
“Before the pandemic struck I travelled all over England for hearings, visiting towns I had never been to before. There was a huge element of choice in the geographical locations of sitting and you are allowed to stay in a hotel overnight dependent on distance and time for travelling to the hearing. Various venues are used for SEND hearings. Over the years I have sat at the Royal Courts of Justice at one extreme and in hotel rooms at the other. One hearing in Derby even took place in a night club, as they happened to have a vacant room!
“Since the Covid 19 pandemic most hearings have been conducted virtually, but this has worked very well and has its own advantages. I understand that going forward there will be a mixture of face-to-face and online hearings, which will hopefully give the best of both worlds.”