Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Manchester Minshull Street Crown Court was very much the stereotypical image of a court, complete with the old brickwork, the large courtrooms with lots of polished wood, and of course, the gowns and the wigs. In comparison, Manchesters Civil Justice Centre was much more modern, consisting of lots of glass and lots of floors. Although in the civil court it was only possible to view small claims trials, in the crown court, it was possible to observe part of a trial with a jury (the defendant was accused of engaging in sexual acts with a minor) and a case of assault which ended with a plea-bargain. Here, both courts will be considered for their differences and similarities, to try and find out how accurate perceptions of the law are. Two observations stood out in the Crown Court; firstly, the number of staff involved both in and behind the scenes of the proceedings. Although in every case, there will be a judge, solicitors or barristers (in some cases both) and in certai n circumstances a jury, the court room is a much busier place than first envisioned. For example, there will be the clerks of the court keeping the procedure running smoothly (e.g. escorting the jury in, swearing in witnesses) and there will be the security officer (who will escort the defendant in and out of the courtroom when required), as well as other staff members who keep the process going. Before the Judge is called, and the court is in session, there are constantly people walking in and out of the courtroom, usually counsel or other members of the court; sometimes a change of plea is issued at the last minute, and a scheduled trial by jury no longer takes place, or the court staff are confirming details of the case. Indeed, among the staff that dont constitute as counsel or the judiciary, the upcoming case is often discussed, bringing everyone up to speed before the case is called into session. A court trial procedure isnt simply the job of the lawyers and the judge as commo n perceptions might have one believe. Secondly, there is a lot more waiting around than anticipated. Trials and hearings do not always take place in one sitting, and they do not even have to be completed on the same day. As aforementioned, more often that not (and certainly more often than initially believed), a scheduled trial will no longer take place, usually due to a change in plea. The case surrounding assault initially was going ahead as a jury trial, but just before the case was due to be called into session, the defendant changed his plea to guilty, which meant a trial was no longer needed. Lord Devlin once described the jury as the lamp that shows freedom livesÃ Ã . However, in reality, very few cases are tried by a jury. Only a small minority of cases are ever brought to trial, of which even fewer are actually tried before a jury, and during the visits to the Crown Court (which as it is only represent 2% of criminal trialsÃ Ã ), only one of the cases ob served was brought before a jury. The jury itself in this instance could be considered as ethnically varied; although mostly white, there was (as far as could be seen) at least one juror from an ethnic minority, and the jury covered both genders in a roughly 2:3 male to female ratio. There was also a noticeable age variation among the jurors, from the estimated age of a university student to the estimated age of a pensioner. As a whole, the jury seemed to be quite involved in what they were doing. Some were paying close attention to the monitor to their left (at that time displaying video evidence) and others were taking notes. Of all the jurors, only the one who appeared to be a student seemed reluctant to be involved in the whole process. Although the way the judge directed the jury both at the beginning of the process and at the end wasnt observed, his instructions during the process were clear, helpful and authoritative, especially when setting up the video call and when d irecting them as to the procedures during their break. Even though issues were discussed between the judge and the both counsels during the jurys absence, when they returned, the judge kept them informed of what had been said, keeping everyone organised and up-to-date. On the whole, in the Crown Court cases, most of the judges did fit with the stereotypical image in terms of age, gender and race: in all the cases observed, all were older white males, and all wore the traditional gowns and wigs anticipated by the public majority when in a court room. However, on the courts daily procedures listings, it was noticed that although the majority of judges were indeed male and of the ranking of Circuit Judge (supporting government statistics that 87.6% Circuit Judges are maleÃ Ã ), there was a singular female judge listed (although she had the ranking of Recorder rather than Circuit Judge, where females only make up 13.68% of the totalÃ Ã ). In a similar light, there too w ere few judges from ethnic minorities, and those that there were from an ethnic minority had the status of a Recorder (6.02% of the total number of Recorders come from an ethnic minorityÃ Ã ). In all, the judges in all the criminal trials and proceedings observed didnt appear to have become case-hardened and cynical as proponents of a jury-based system will have people believe. The judges seemed willing to keep an open mind throughout the case and were friendly to everyone both during the proceedings and the time in between. In a case of assault, when the judge was giving his final statements, he took a moment aside from the case to thank the defendants mother (the defendant was a black male teenager, seemingly conforming to stereotypes) for coming to the trial. He went on to explain then about how many similar cases hed tried and how often the family of the accused actually bothered to go to the proceedings, so he was glad that the mother would still support her son. Alth ough not strictly law related, this feature of this one trial was surprising and challenged common perceptions that judges are stereotypically harsh and unfeeling. This was especially the case with young offenders in specific circumstances in the case of assault, the defendant was initially defending himself from attack and took the defence too far. One of the most interesting aspects of the Crown Court was the use of video-calling to interview a witness. This was most likely due to the fact the material witness was a fourteen year old girl, who for various reasons could not be present within the courtroom itself. A video-monitor was situated near to the jury and another was situated in view of the whole court, and these were used to both hold the video-call and to observe video evidence. The judge himself was in control of the call, echoing his authority. This case also interesting due to the fact it shows how serious evidence is taken by the judge although only fourteen, the witness was still required to be sworn in and how important tangible evidence actually is for a criminal trial. Unlike the proceedings in the Crown Court, the proceedings in the Civil Court had a much more restricted access, mostly due to the nature of the cases. A vast majority of the cases brought before a Civil Court are family proceedings, which means they are conducted in private, and this restricted the number of cases available for viewing. As of April 27th 2009, the restriction on journalists who wished to attend family court hearings was lifted, allowing for more proceedings to be heard publicly, but they are not given automatic access to court documents and reporting restrictions still remain in place, including the total ban on reporting Children Act proceedings and hearings concerning the maintenance and upbringing of a childÃ Ã , even if this means nothing to the public majority. In comparison, in the Crown Court, where the cases are of a criminal nature, the re are no restrictions on members of the press being present during any trial or case, even if the case itself is not open to the rest of the publicÃ Ã (which would only occur in cases of national security or cases of a highly sensitive nature). Out of the cases observed in the Civil Court, not one involved the use of a jury. Jury trials in civil courts are now very rare, and are restricted to cases of fraud, libel and slander, malicious prosecution and cases of false imprisonment. It too can be said that unlike in a magistrates or a crown court where their job is to determine the truth and validity of a case based on the evidence brought before them, in a civil court, their job is to base their decision on the balance of probabilities. During one of the small claims trials in the Civil Court, neither party had a fully qualified representative for their counsel. The defendant defended himself, and eventually lost the case partially on the basis that he didnt really seem to understand the legal process (i.e. the procedure required for witness statements or how to ask witnesses questions that were actually relevant to his case) and as a consequence couldnt defend himself adequately. The judge constantly had to reiterate and qualify what he meant or what he was asking, which made the process much longer than maybe it needed to have been. In comparison, the claimant was in the process of taking the BVC and had previous experience within his company of similar cases, even if he wasnt yet qualified, and so had a much greater understanding of what was going on (he was able to include cases which constituted precedent for his argument and he understood how the whole process worked, such as addressing the judge and using the specific terminology). This seems to suggest that the case wasnt as understandable to a lay person as to someone who has some understanding of legal issues and terminology. In the Civil Court, there was a much greater use of precede nt than in the Crown Court, supporting the prior observation that a civil case is decided on a balance of probabilities rather than on the basis of the validity of evidence presented (e.g. cases include Lumley v. GreenÃ Ã , OBG Ltd v AllanÃ Ã ). This isnt to say that evidence isnt used in a Civil Court or isnt equally as important, but it emphasised the extent to which a criminal trial is mostly based upon evidence which is unique to a certain case. A civil trial is different in that the specifics dont matter quite as much as the way similar cases have been settled in the past. The proceedings in the civil court were a much more continual process, or at least in the small claims trial the proceedings were more continuous. Whereas as aforementioned, the criminal trials involved a lot of sitting around, the cases in the civil court werent interrupted once, with the entire case laid out before the judge and then his decision being made at the end of the proceedings (in one case, his decision to issue damages to be paid by the defendant). However, these small claims trials arent fully representative of all the proceedings in the civil court, despite making up a large percentage, and it must be acknowledged that proceedings in full trials of other matters may indeed have been much different. Indeed, whilst waiting for a small claims trial to come into session, many counsel were observed walking around the courthouse, dressed in the traditional gowns, so whilst there were no wigs or gowns in the small claims trial, this doesnt mean they arent used in a trial in a higher court. The same therefore can be said about the proceedings what goes on in a lower court in front of a district judge may not be the same as one in a High court. Similar to the Crown Court, the judge in the small claims trial was male, however didnt fit into the stereotypical image of a judge he was Asian, fairly young and didnt wear any of the traditional gowns. Unlike the Cro wn Court too, he was referred to as Sir rather than Your Honour, which implies that the proceedings in this type of court case are a lot less formal than perhaps in a criminal trial (e.g. the members of the court werent required to stand when the judge entered) or even a civil trial in a High Court. So although he could potentially be viewed as holding a lower rank, this is not due to his ethnicity a High Court Judge simply isnt required to sit in on such a minor issue and there was no way of determining the race of the other judges in session. In the same light, there was no way to determine whether or not there were any female judges in session, or their rank, simply due to the trials available to see. Despite this, there were plenty of female staff, usually in administrative roles or acting as counsel, most noticeable acting at the clerk of the court. However, unlike in the Crown Court, she left almost immediately, leaving very few people in the courtroom as proceedings unfolded . The organisation of the civil court seemed to be a bit lacking, with proceedings being held up due to a lack of judges being in attendance or simply because parties involved were still trying to settle before their case was brought into session. In the same manner, cases which are scheduled do not always go ahead as planned as a defendant in a criminal trial will change his plea, so too can parties in a civil trial settle before they go before a judge which meant there was a lot of waiting around for proceedings to begin. This seems counter to the claim that a civil courts principle objection is the avoidance of delay and the minimisation of delay if it cannot be avoided entirelyÃ Ã , especially in light of the judges power to adjourn hearings at their discretion. In conclusion, many common perceptions surrounding court procedures are actually unfounded, both in the civil area and in the criminal. There are many more similarities in the different courts than origin ally perceived, but there are also some differences that were unexpected, such as the formalities of procedure and the amount of people actually involved in the different court processes. However, despite their similarities, the two types of court are very different in their nature (such as the types of cases they deal with) and these difference are obvious from watching the different proceedings.