My report on court room observation focuses on observations from two courts. The first one was the Manchester Civil Justice Centre which is a new justice building in Manchester. It houses the Manchester County Court and the Manchester District Registry of the High Court, as well as Manchester City Magistrates’ Family Courts, the District Probate Registry and the Regional and Area Offices of the Court Service. The second one was the Crown Court on Minsull Street in Manchester City Centre for criminal court observations. The Courts are held in order to resolve local disputes and maintain order in the society. This is an ongoing process which started over six hundred years ago.
Before attending, each court was contacted in order to find out the times and cases that could be attended as some cases such as youth cases are not open to the public. Firstly I attended to the Manchester Civil Justice Centre. The entrance of the building was imposing. After some guidance from the people there I attended to court 20 of the fifth floor which there was a civil case about a car incident. The layout of the courtroom was simple there was no raised layers except from the judge’s. Also there was not defendant’s box and no presence of police. The judge was a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. The public sat on the back of the court room.
The case I have heard was about a car incidence, as I mentioned above. This case included a claim from the one party and a counter claim from the other. The claim was made because the defendant did not see the plaintiff car coming and try to evade. The counter claim was made by the defendant for personal injury as the defendant injured his leg and his lower back from the collision with the woman’s car. But as I have seen in the court room the two claims examined simultaneously by the judge so as in order to save time. The legal way to examine a claim and a counter claim is to be examining separately, but in order not to waste of time for this procedure, the judge examines the two claims simultaneously.
As I entered the court room I sat on the back, where the public sits, facing the judge bench at the other end of the room. In front of me on the right side there was the claimant with her solicitor and in front of them the Barrister sitting on a separately layer. On the left side was the defendant with his Barrister in front him. At first the claimant went to the witness stand in order to be examined by both parties. The claimant said that she was parked at the end of the left side of the road and went to the shops near by. Afterwards she went back to hers car and tried to get back on the road. But when she tried to go to the right side of the road she did not notice the defendant’s car on time, so as she could not avoid them as it was too late so the two cars crushed. After her short speech she crosses examined by the two advocates with several questions. Then the defendant went to the witness stand. He said that he was driving across the road and suddenly without any indication the claimant’s car came into his side of the road. He tried to avoid her but having only seconds to react he did not manage to avoid her. At that point the claimant’s barrister insisted that he passed illegally from the Pelican crossing few metres away from the incident. The defendant denied that. Also another important argument was that on the witness statement the defendant said that he broke his leg but afterwards the doctor said that he had also damaged his lower back.
After the defendants examination his father in law came in for a witness statement as he was the co-driver at the time of the incident. The judge and the plaintiff’s party tried to find out if the defendant and his father in law had ever again talked about the incident or just the evidence. He answered negatively but he was a little bit confused. At the end of the trial the judge summarised all the evidence and facts from the beginning and gave his final judgement that the incident’s costs will be divided into fifty percent to each and the trial’s costs would be paid by the defendant.
As a have seen from my visit to the County Court one possible fact that may discourage the parties from claiming is the much questioning and cross-examination that they have to pass through. Cases in the County Court can be very comprehensible to lay persons. In fact, all the lawyers responded well when asked to speak up, and also they were re-phrasing the questions that were not understood. A fact that surprised me was that by the time that the case comes to the County Court, there is no question of statutory interpretation or matter of law. As seen from the case it was merely a matter of fact instead to be based to the judicial precedent.
In reference to legal skills, all lawyers were able to present these. Legal skills refer to effective research, communication and organisation skills. All parties seemed to be fully prepared. Another important observations, was the role of the barristers and solicitors. The role of the barrister was, as expected to present the cases to the courtroom and the solicitors’ role was to do the main body of the work. Although solicitors have the right to speak in the court room, there were a few instances in which the barrister would refer to the solicitor asking if all the points had been covered or if there were further points that they felt relevant to discuss. But the factor that surprised me the most from my visit to the courtroom was, the minimal use of precedent. The English law system is one of common law, which suggests that much emphasis is placed on the precedents and case law.
My next visit was the Crown Court on Minsull Street in Manchester City Centre as a choice for my criminal court observations. The layout of the Crown Court was more complicate from the Civil Justice centre. There were two floors and ten courtrooms. The building looked different as it is traditional and old fashionable in comparison with the Civil Justice Centre which is fresh new building. This may have been due to the structure of the courtrooms and the architecture of the building. In addition, the presence of police makes it more formal.
However in order to find timetable the reception desk was contacted so as to know the cases that were being available to public. The courtroom in which I witness a case was a traditional one, where the juries sat in a high gallery and could see everything clearly. The courtroom had one raised layer for the judge and a depressed area in the centre of the courtroom for the barristers and the solicitors to sit. Also the defendant’s box was in the centre of the courtroom. For the public there was an upstairs public gallery at the back of the courtroom.
The judge matched the stereotypical image of a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. Actually, the courtroom was full off middle class, white males. In the courtroom there were no representatives from ethnic minorities and only few women participate in the case. This supports the view that advocates are selected from a restricted social background age, sex and status.
As this was a jury trial, it was composed of 12 members, a mixture of male and female and of a range of ages between 30 and 45. There were no ethnic minorities, as stated above, and they all were dressed formally in suits, ties and shirts and were taking notes constantly. This I can say was as expected. It is often assumed that juries are under representative of the local community and furthermore that jury service allows ordinary people to participate in the administration of justice.
The role of jurors in a case is to listen to the facts and give their verdict. I could agree completely with the assumption that jury keeps public’s faith as the jury system has existed for hundreds of years. The jury system also ensures the independence of the judiciary. They are independent consultant and are intended to promote natural justice. How ever there is an argument that jury trials are an ineffective method of promoting justice as in some of lengthy and complex cases, jurors may not be capable of understanding evidence and follow the law, people often may resent serving on juries makes them much expensive. However, the section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 says that the prosecution may, in some serious cases examined only by judge, if the juries can not follow the case. Another issue is that juries do not have to give reasons for their verdicts. Although many times there have been suggestions to reduce the trials by jury, the English legal reforms have never tried to abolish the jury system completely, instead reforms have actively tried to encourage participation. Furthermore everything in a case has to be explained in layman’s terms, so the judge must directed to the jury and explain every misunderstanding part which means that jury trials take a considerable amount of time. Thus it is a fact that jury trials can be unduly long.
The case I witnessed itself was easy to follow. It involved a fight between two neighbours. The prosecutor, a woman, prosecuted the defendant, a 30 years old man with the offence that he bit her and her daughter up. The fight was about a parking space across their homes. The woman was not present at the courtroom but her witness statement was read again. I suppose that at the first hearing the prosecutor examined by the court. Then, the defendant took place at the defendant’s box so as to be examined by the two advocates. From the beginning of his speech he insisted that he had never beat up the prosecutor and her daughter but on the other hand he claimed that he was terrified because he has been receiving many threats recently. Although, he said that he is not walking around of his own house any more and that the woman is dangerous. Also he added that she tried to struggle him and not vice versa. The prosecutor’s barrister to oppose this argument brought to the court evidence that the doctor who examined the defendant could not found any signs of such an action. Nevertheless it was held that this argument could not be precise because the intentions of the prosecutor were unknown and the signs of the struggle may faded by the time the doctor examined the defendant. The juries were paying great attention to the case. The judge seemed to be firm with his decisions and always took into account any factors. Also he directed the jury well, explaining every procedure of questioning and summing again the speeches of the witnesses. Finally a witness for defendant came to the room. The witness, the daughter of the defendant said that the prosecutor hit her and after that she started to cry. At the end of the case there were many effective arguments heard which I believe may have influence the juries decision for the defendant.
To sum up, the case was easy to follow, and comprehensible to lay people, entirely different from what I had expected. The difficult part was that the jury trials take very long time. This happens because of the fact that everything has to be explained to layman’s ears by the judge.
I was surprised at how simple the facts of the case were. But another vital issue as seen in the Civil Court was the little reference to precedent, merely stating only a section within the relevant statute. This supports the idea that the purpose of the courts is to discuss, question and decide on evidence. However since the case was so long, the conclusion was set to be another day, and so I wasn’t able to see the outcome. But I believe that the juries will acquit the defendant from all the charges as they shown to sympathise him.
The legal action in the Crown Court appeared to be much more formal than those in the Civil Justice Courts. This may be because in the Crown Court the cases are more serious and expect greater attention and there is also the presence of police. Although in the Crown Court you have many people involved in the case such as the juries, who they will give the final decision to the case, the hearings are comprehensible to lay persons. Furthermore in some serious and difficult cases the juries cannot easily follow them so as the decision will come from the judge himself. However I believe that trials by juries are the simple of democracy, so as the public feels more confident. The jury services are great importance so they may not have to be abolished. The courts as I have seen in act are efficient in hearing cases and achieving accurate results. A matter which is questionable is whether or not the restrict background of judges, juries and other legal advocates allows them to sympathise with the general public and reflect true justice. In general, I believe that it was a valuable insight into the legal action of criminal and civil proceedings.
James Holland and Julian Webb, Learning Legal Rules, 6th Edition
Tim Vollans and Clenn Asquith, English Legal System
http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/ukpga_20030044_en_1 (criminal justice act 2003)
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