Monday, May 18, 2015

Friday: The Magistrates Court Visit

I guess I got a little bit behind in my blogging! I apologize. I will start a series of blogs to catch you all up!

On Friday morning, we rode the tube to Marlybone and visited the Margistrate Court of Westminster. Magistrate courts are the lowest courts in the UK. They would be like the county courts in America. As we watched the proceedings and different cases, I learned how our two court systems are different. Our tour guide was a lawyer before she was a tour guide, so she was pretty knowledgeable of the system. She gave us some fantastic information! Even though parts of our court system are based on the British system, there are some pretty big differences.

1. The lawyers are different. In the UK, they're called solicitors. (Sounds like a salesman or a prostitute, right?) They go to law school just like ours do, but the training is slightly different. In the courtroom, there are defense and prosecution lawyers. They sit right next to each other and have pretty much the same functions as our lawyers. However, we learned that several of the defense lawyers and even some prosecutors come into initial court appearances without even looking at the cases. They can walk in and they are given the stack of cases for the day. Most of the time, these cases are people who were arrested the night before and just need to be given release or remand. These are just some of the differences between the UK and the US.

2. The judges come in two different forms. In magistrate courts, lay judges are probably more common. Lay judges are members of the community who volunteer to be a lay judge. It's like volunteering for civic duty. In courtrooms with lay judges, there are almost always three on a panel. They go out to deliberate when they have to make judgements. The other judges are district judges. These judges were previously solicitors who then applied to be district judges. We figured out quickly that cases with district judges go much faster because there's only one judge in those courts! He doesn't have to discuss his decisions with anybody else.

3. UK courts use legal advisors quite frequently. A legal advisor is trained in law and keeps up to date on all of the new laws. He or she advises the judges when making decisions. These legal advisors are really important for the lay judges because lay judges don't have legal training. The legal advisor makes sure they are making informed and legal decisions.

4. There are no juries in magistrate courts. Juries are reserved for trials of more serious crimes. They are only in the next highest court - the crown court. If a judge (or panel of judges) decides that the crime was serious enough for a jury, they can waive the trial onto a crown court where a jury will hear the case. This almost always happens with murder, rape, assault, and treason cases. They feel they need more than one to three people to decide the guilt of the defendant.

5. The defendant is treated very differently in these courts. Defendants don't sit by their lawyers like in our courts. They sit in a glass box on the side of the room. They only other person in the box is the guard. We also noticed that the communication between the defense lawyers and the defendant is sometimes not very clear. We saw several defense lawyers shush the defendants when they tried to say something. I believe this is because some defense lawyers don't have a lot of time to prepare the defendant. Also, the judges are very aware of the defendants in the box. They pay close attention. One of the lay judges stopped the hearing because the defendant was (fake) crying. He sent somebody to get her tissues and water.

I think that these are probably the most important things I noticed while watching the court proceedings. I know it really opened my eyes to how "harsh" our system looks compared to the British system. We have mandatory sentences for people with multiple offenses. We watched one guy's sentencing. He had 90 prior offenses and he only got 4 weeks in jail for his most recent offense. Our judges are very well trained and our lawyers spend a little bit more time with a case. I don't think the British system is weak, but I do think it reflects the mindset here. We emphasize punishment while the UK seems to emphasize rehabilitation.

Visiting the court was a fantastic experience and I'm glad that I got a chance to see a part of the system in action!

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