Series: Letters from a Law Student No.4 – My First Time in Court?
Attending court is a must for anyone aspiring to be a lawyer for numerous reasons. You will witness the formal procedures and seriousness of the courtroom, helping you to assess whether it is an environment you want to work in. You will watch the sharp-minded barristers perform and consider whether you are sharp and brave enough to emulate their talent – although I am sure much of this can be taught and nurtured. Leading on from this, hopefully you will be able to distinguish more clearly the career path in the Law that you want to take.
My first time attending a court was an underwhelming experience for two reasons. The first reason was that it was the Chester Civil Court which deals predominantly with ‘petty’ crimes and so I was not going to witness anything exciting. The second reason was that my only purpose being there was to say “yes sir” to the judge to claim compensation as a result of a car accident. All very boring. My second time attending court, however, was much more grandiose, being in the Crown Court and witnessing the summing up of a murder trial advocated by two QCs.
I arrived at Liverpool Crown Court at 9 am to shadow Judge Teague for the day. I was not prepared for what he had in store for me. As we – myself, the family of one of the victims and the press – were ushered into the courtroom, I found myself sitting in the front row of the gallery, staring directly into the eyes of the man in the dock. In 10 minutes time, this man was to be sentenced to serve a minimum of 21 years in prison for the brutal murder of a disabled man. However, at the time the scale of the iniquity of the offence this man had committed was unbeknownst to me. I knew I was going to be seeing a murder trial but not one of this nature. Being in a city, I assumed that the murder was going to be between rival gangs or something of this nature. Nevertheless, when the judge summed up the case and sentenced him, the facts were startling.
This man – who if I mention his name believe, out of an irrational fear, that he will come and get me – was a steroid user, and during what is commonly referred to as a ‘roid rage’, in which you become overly aggressive from the use of steroids, pursued his perverse prejudice toward disabled people. He brutally murdered a man in a wheelchair. He threw his victim out of his chair and, resisting a bystanders attempts to stop him, proceeded to stomp on his head and then, in the height of cowardness, ran from the scene. The innocent man in the chair died in hospital just weeks later from the injuries incurred from this callous attack. Later, whilst the attacker was arrested he purported to the police that he was doing their job by getting people like that off of the street. Ironically, we, the general public, can be glad that such an unscrupulous and unstable individual has been removed from the streets of Britain, making us all safer.
As the Judge read aloud the facts of the case and identified the aggravating factors, I felt a coldness ascend my spine. A passion boiled within me; it was like an anger that surged for justice. I felt like a crime as cold-hearted as this one deserved more than just prison time. This man deserved to be publicly hanged. However, turning to the victim’s family sat to my left, separated from the dock by a translucent screen, and seeing their faces of relief helped me to reconcile with rationality and recognise that justice had been served by this man’s lengthy sentence. Although, the actions of the murderer following the Judges sentencing further compounded the evil of this man and made me think twice. Understandably, the victim’s family’s emotions were in a heightened and obviously volatile state at this point and, as the man left the dock to be taken below the court and onward to prison, they turned and stood up to look over the screen at the man who had so heartlessly taken away a loved one. The man responded without compassion and in the most sinister of ways; he winked and smiled at the family. A man, smug at the fact that he had murdered a defenceless disabled man in cold blood.
The Catholic Priest, sitting next to me in the gallery, turned to whisper in my ear words that, from a man who engenders faith, compassion and understanding, were so unexpected: “some people are just so evil that they do not deserve forgiveness”. These words, coming from a man of his status, have had a profound impact on me and I constantly think about them to this day. Do all people deserve forgiveness if they so desire it?
Court clearly has a profound impact on people. It is certainly not an environment for the faint-hearted or sensitive. One should carefully consider their personality and whether they will be able to cope with such a hard-hitting environment and any potential mental health repercussions from working in such an intense place. Court is almost paradoxical in nature, bringing so much good to the world by incarcerating bad, dangerous and sadistic people, whilst simultaneously inflicting a damning indictment on society by uncovering the evil that rests within humanity.
However, and on a lighter note, whilst I was shocked by the cruelty of the murderer, I was astonished by the talent of the barristers on the case. The way they handle themselves commands respect, from the way they so eloquently articulate themselves, which generates an air of authority and respectability, to their ability to read the room (the jury and those being cross-examined), when to attack and retreat, when to raise and control their voice and when to conclude their argument. The subtleties and flawless nature of their performance is mesmerising. I can only wish to imitate the genuine art of being a QC. However, as I say, it is not a job for the sensitive and one can only get a sense for this being in the actual courtroom.
Watching the barristers working in tandem with the judge was also useful in gaining an insight into the formalities of the Courtroom and the role of a judge. The discipline, structure and seriousness of the whole process emanates a course that is conducive to finding truth and justice. The Judge arbitrates the whole process to ensure this course remains on its route, explaining points of law to the jury in layman’s terms and ensuring barristers do not overstep their mark, creating an unfair trial. The whole process is simply a means to an end – the end being justice – and the Judge expertly ensures this is done equitably.
At face value the role of a barrister or judge seems to be exciting, a battle of brains in the guise of a performance. However, I was lucky to attend such an exciting case, and from further discussions with the barristers after the trial, they assured me that this was not always the case. Fortunately, most cases are not as egregious and this restored some of my faith in humanity. It is wrong to see the process as a game, where the prosecution is competing against the defence. Individual's liberties are on the line and each side recognises the seriousness of this, never letting the urge to compete overcome the search for justice. Of course, the whole structure may at first seem like it is designed to make the sides compete, but it is not the promotion of competition that the sides are incentivised by. Both sides will want to strive to present a solid and irrefutable case for professional respectability and status to ensure solicitors will continue to instruct them. Hence, like any form of employment, they are incentivised to perform to the highest standard by money and professional respectability. It is a fallacy created by the entertainment industry – like the programme Suits - where the prosecution and defence are rivals and by winning a case they have ‘bettered’ their counterpart. A barrister is judged by the way they present the case and how they use the facts to construct a solid argument, their decorum in court and whether they are intelligible and articulate. There is a myriad of factors that determine whether a barrister is of any quality but their ‘win to loss’ ratio is not one. Barristers will do what they are instructed to do to the highest of standards and should not be governed by their emotions such as those a sense of competition would evoke.
My first time in court was boring; my second time in court profound. Working in court as a barrister or judge is not for the faint hearted and my murder case highlighted that. One is exposed to sensitive and hard-hitting topics which must be coped with. The courtroom experience provokes thoughts - often irrational - and questions which can be exciting, deep and academic. It is enjoyable to engage with these thoughts and questions as an academic challenge. Whilst court portrays a fast-tempo and exhilarating life being a barrister or judge, this is deceiving. Much of the work they do is outside of the court and, whilst it is useful to see a glimpse of what it would be like working in court and to think whether you would like it there, it must be remembered that there are many long and lonely hours preparing for that exciting moment performing in court. Thus, whilst it is useful to go to court for the reasons explained above, in order to gain a full-perspective on life as a lawyer, one must undertake work-experience shadowing a barrister for a couple of days in order to fully comprehend what life as a barrister would be like.