Paul Gantley has been a Specialist Lay Member of the First-tier Tribunal Health, Education and Social Care (HESC) since 2012 and tells us more about his experience in the role, and how he got into it.
What were you doing before you became a Specialist Lay Member?
“I was working at the Department for Health, and before that, as a Mental Health Commissioning Manager. Earlier still, I was a mental health social worker, and manager, for many years and as part of my role, I’d often give evidence at mental health tribunals. So, I was already very familiar with this setting.”
What made you want to transition?
I was made redundant and able to retire from my role as the Implementation Manager for the Mental Capacity Act at a relatively young age (55). That coincided with a recruitment exercise for this role and it was perfect timing for me. You need to be able to make yourself available for a minimum of 32 days a year and I had the luxury of being able to commit to this; potential candidates need to be sure they have the flexibility to meet this requirement.”
What are the biggest differences between working as a social worker and as a tribunal panel member?
“Tribunal work is focused on a specific outcome, and you can only make your decision based on the law. So, even though you will bring a wide perspective because of all your experience of mental health matters, the decision is governed by statue and you have to remember that.
“A tribunal case is not a case conference, it’s about whether somebody is safe enough to be in the community or if they need to be detained. You are a judicial office holder so even though your social work experience is significant, you need to approach this work from a different angle.”
Career high as specialist tribunal member?
“Though we uphold detentions in many cases, the most satisfying part of the role for me is when we’re able to make the decision to discharge someone back into the community; especially someone who has been detained for a long time. It means they have been rehabilitated after many years, typically after lots of work in building or rebuilding significant relationships. Positively, only very few of the “forensic patients” who were originally sent to hospital by a Court re-offend. The Tribunal has a good record in making safe decisions to discharge in these circumstances.
What have you found the most difficult?
“Making that initial transition from social worker to tribunal member took a little while. We can’t get distracted by peripheral issues – the decisions are narrower than the ones you make as a practitioner; but you get used to it. The induction training helps a great deal.”
What has stood out the most?
“There’s a remarkable level of consensus about decisions. It has to be a shared decision and for the most part, it’s agreed by all three tribunal members – you’d be surprised just how much agreement there is. I also want to emphasise that the tribunal training is excellent and enables us to maintain our knowledge of case law, legislation and related matters. The tribunal works well and efficiently, and it’s been a positive experience for me to be part of a very important part of our justice system.”
What do we need to see more of in tribunals?
“We have lots of highly experienced professionals working as tribunal members as they typically have a greater chance of having the flexibility to meet the minimum sitting requirements. However, I would encourage anyone, at any stage of their career, who meets the eligibility criteria to apply to take on this hugely interesting and rewarding role.”
One bit of advice for applicants?
“Be ready to work with different colleagues from one tribunal to the next. Be ready to travel to a wide variety of places and to become an expert on public transport if you don’t drive.”