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Legal Methods & Systems: Assessed Coursework DO NOT COPY
Legal Methods & Systems Assessed Coursework
The courts of the United Kingdom are institutions which aim to deliver justice. Whether convicting someone for unlawful activity or resolving a civil dispute, the British legal system employs a variety of courts in its application of the law. For example, Magistrates courts have the jurisdiction to try minor offences whereas more serious offences are referred to the Crown courts. There are also appellate courts, which include the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court; formally known as the House of Lords. In order to gain a better understanding of the workings of our legal system, I visited the Crown and County courts in Manchester.
Courtroom activity can be witnessed from public galleries. This implementation is aimed at making the legal process open and transparent to the public. This is an obvious advantage of the legal system and should create greater trust between the population and the legal system under which they live. However, understandably there are exceptions to the open court principle, in particular when it comes to Youth or Family courts, which means some trails can be held privately. During my visits, there were both journalists and family members present at public galleries watching the court proceedings.
On arrival at the courts, personal belongings are checked by security guards. Security checks are done in order to ensure the court remains a safe environment. Upon entry I obtained a list of the cases being heard on that particular day. During the day I was able to witness several sentencing cases as well as the beginning of a trial.
This trial involved a defendant who had been charged on two accounts. The first charge was for possession with intent to supply A class drugs under Section 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and the second was possession of class A drugs. As the defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges, he was tried before a judge and jury.
The jury consisted of 5 white females and 7 white males. Although there were no non-white jury members in the selection, the jurors were of varying ages. One of the criticisms of random jury selection is that it can lead to an unrepresentative selection which might count against the defendant. The use of the electoral register to generate random selections of jurors is supposed to produce a group of 12 jurors who are a representative sample of society. However in reality this random selection is not always a true representative of society, whereby 12 people of the same ethnic background may be selected on a single jury. One possible counter argument to this criticism is that despite randomly selected juries not producing true representations of society, having a random selection makes a fair jury and that 12 jurors should neutralise any bias or prejudices that a minority may have. Lord Denning’s statement that “12 persons selected at random are likely to be a cross-section of the people as a whole - and thus represent the views of the common man” can be supported by the idea that a random and untouched jury is arguably better than one that has been pre-selected and altered.
The judge hearing the trial was a district judge and wore a black gown along with a long red sash over his left shoulder and a wig. This did not help with the stereotype that judges are older, white males. There has been criticism about the lack of judges of ethnic minority. Although this criticism is seen to be addressed by the Judicial Appointments Committee, which is trying to open up the position of judges to a wider range of people. During subsequent visits, I observed several white female judges as well as one black judge.
When the defendant arrived in court, he was directed to be seated in the defendant’s box. Due to the late arrival of the defendant, the defence barrister had to apologise on his behalf, resulting in the judge sanctioning him custody during lunchtime. Time inefficiencies appeared to be common within the courts and I witnessed several court procedures that failed to start on time. Once the first delay had occurred, this would affect the following events on the same day and sometimes led to the adjournment of cases to subsequent days. Taking into consideration the costs of court procedures as well as the effort that family members must go through to attend, possibly taking time off work, I was left with the impression that the system appears rather inefficient and slow.
The defendant’s unpunctuality, as well as his demeanour in court, made him appear to be unconcerned with the fact that he was on trial. This could have an impact on the jury’s thoughts about the defendant and consequently may have even played a part in their decision making towards the end of the trail. This may be symptomatic of serial offenders who may go through this process many times. Such repetition might seem an ineffective use of the judicial process. Alternatively, common practice will result in the public being aware of exactly what is involved in the judicial process.
Once the jurors had been sworn in, the prosecuting barrister began with her opening statement. She reminded the jury of their role, which was to weight up the evidence in order to decide on the facts of the case. In comparison, the role of the judge was to interpret the law and direct the jury accordingly. Although I did not witness the judge interpreting the law, I was able to see the judge’s interaction with the jury, whereby he would confirm whether the jury understood what they had heard as well as repeat and reiterate statements given by witnesses to ensure that the jury fully understood. Although the terms and facts of this case were relatively simple and could be easily understood, the support and reiteration by the judge seemed to be helpful for the jury, some of whom found it difficult to follow the trial. A further disadvantage of jury service is that it can be longwinded and tedious and this probably explains its unpopularity. Many jurors will have to take time out of their daily schedules in order to attend the court; some may even lose money if they are forced to take leave from work. The lengthy process of some jury trials could result in jurors losing interest or becoming bored of a case and subsequently this could affect their decisions at the end of the trial.
The barristers involved in this trial were both middle-aged, white females. This can be seen to challenge the stereotype that the legal profession is male-dominated and statistics show that now over half the entrants to the profession are women.
Although there was reference to statute when the defendant was read his charge, the remainder of the trial was less concerned with the law and more focused on establishing the facts of the case. The prosecution called 3 witnesses in total, all of which were police officers. Once they arrived in the witness stand, they were asked to swear an oath. Both the prosecution and defence barristers took the witnesses through a series of pictures that were being used in evidence, questioning the location of the defendant as well as the positioning of the police at the scene. Once the defence barrister had finished cross-examining the third witness,the Court was adjourned and the trial was to be continued later on that day.
The courtroom in which I was able to witness a sentencing take place was set out differently from the one in which I witnessed the trial. Whilst the first was relatively open, the second seemed quite small and cramped due to the positioning of the defendant’s box in centre of the room. This obstructed my view of the judge, the defence barristers and also meant that I was unable to see the defendant. Whilst this seems to be the case in older courtrooms, relatively newer courtrooms in newer buildings have created a more open and unobstructed space, where all persons within the courtroom can be seen.
Before the judge decided on the sentence for the defendant in this case, he mentioned the disorderly and unorganised state of the defence barrister’s bundle. Many legal cases involve a large amount of paper work, which in many instances has to be printed multiple times. In a modern computerised, paper-free world this seems comparatively outdated and inefficient.
During my visit to the County court I was able to observe a trial concerning contractual misrepresentations. In contrast to the trial I observed in the Crown court, there was no jury and the case was heard by a single judge. This particular judge was known as Recorder Yip. In order to become a Recorder, a person must be a solicitor or barrister of at least 10 years standing. In contrast to circuit judges, they work part time, may travel around the country and will hear cases from Crown and County courts.
Similarly to the trial in the Crown court, there was a focus on determining the actual facts of the case. The facts of this particular case were more complex than the facts of the criminal case, involving exact measurements and a wide range of costs, and were often repeated during the proceedings so that the claimant could follow and understand the points being made by the defence barrister. The defence barrister was particularly tough on the first witness and came across as intimidating when he cross-examined her; often accusing her of being “evasive about particulars”. As a result of his harsh approach, the judge was forced to ask the barrister to ensure his questions were fair and to move on with his submissions instead of repeating them.
Also in the County court I observed an application for injunction. The injunction involved the defendants being prevented from further distributing any personal information relating to the claimant, who was worried that once they did so, his creditability would be jeopardized.
The claimant in this particular case had attended court with a friend, who it appeared was there to address the court on his behalf. The judge explained to the claimant that only a legal representative was able to speak on his behalf, though he was entitled to represent himself. The entitlement to represent oneself can be seen as a positive aspect of the legal system, allowing even those who cannot afford legal representation access to justice. On the other hand, with little legal experience of his own, the claimant could be at a disadvantage against the three barristers who were representing the businesses he was suing. He was at first unfamiliar with the courtroom formalities and found difficulty in establishing his submissions to the court. The judge appeared sympathetic to the claimant but was not prepared to grant the injunction unless she was certain that it would make a difference to the claimant. Therefore, the judge heard from the barristers of the other parties, as well as the claimant himself, to establish whether the injunction was actually needed.
Court ushers and clerks can be seen to play a large role in the administration of courtrooms ensuring that proceedings within the court run smoothly throughout the day. Whilst at the court, the ushers helpfully provided me with relevant information about the cases being heard as well as alerting me of any other details of which I was expected to know whilst observing the courts.
The court visits provided me with an informative view of the practice of judges, barristers and solicitors as well as their interactions with the public. Despite the presence of conflicting parties, all legal professionals appeared keen and enthusiastic to work together and ensure that the work was carried out in the most effective way possible. In addition to giving me an insight into the processes of the courts, my visits also revealed some of the negative aspects of our legal system. This includes the frequent delays and dependency on large volumes of paper.
[Word count: 2000]
Holland & Webb, Learning Legal Rules (6th edition, 2006 Oxford University Press)
J. Adams & R. Brownsword, Understanding Law (2003, Sweet & Maxwell)
G. Slapper, How the Law Works (2007, Collins)
Regina v Sheffield Crown Court, Ex Parte Brownlow 1980 Q.B. 530
 Reg. v Sheffield Crown Court, Ex Parte Brownlow 1980 Q.B. 530
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