Courtroom Observation Visit

 

Introduction

            In practice, court proceedings are open to the members of public as well as students who frequently visit the courts to observe the processes. Such observations are important for law students as it provides a valuable opportunity of practical learning on how the court systems work and how barristers engage in trial advocacy to present their cases. My report on court room focuses on observations made at the Royal Courts of Justice located in Strand, City of Westminster. The court building is located in London and it houses both the High Court and the Court of Appeal in England and Wales. Before making a visit to the court, there is a mandatory requirement that one must contact the court to inquire the time and cases that are open to the public. My visit was scheduled for the 29th March 2016 at 10 am and on this date I made my way to the court on time.

Court Observation

On entering the building, the first step involved undergoing a security search. I noted that there was a citizen’s advice bureau within the main all and all people who did not have legal representatives were asked to visit the office. Upon inquiry, I was informed that the services offered by the bureau were free and information was treated with a lot of confidentiality. Present along the hall was also a Personal Support Unit where litigants could receive information concerning court proceedings and emotional counseling. There was a cause list at the central hall stating the various cases and the courts where proceedings were to take place and the stage of each of the cases. I quickly perused the list and decided to proceeded to the Queen’s Bench Division which had many cases open to public hearing.

            The people present in the courtroom other than the members of the public included a judge who was seated at a raised layer and was dressed in a plain dark zipped robe with a wig. The judge also wore a blue colored tab below the collar. The judge is tasked with the responsibility of conducting a fair trial. Also present in the court were two barristers one arguing a case for the plaintiff and the other for the defendant. Both the defendant and the plaintiffs were seated next to their legal representatives. Other people present in the court room included the court clerk who sat in front of the judge and acted as an administrative assistance, and the usher. The role of the usher involved ushering in the judge by informing the court when to stand, passing documents from the judge to the barristers and bringing the witnesses in and out of the court room. I proceeded into the courtroom and sat in the public gallery. The layout of the court was simple with a raised layer for the judge. The court clerk informed me of a few simple rules that I was required to follow; the first was to switch off my phone, try to make as little noise as possible, and make sure to stand up when the usher calls for the court to do so. The court clerk also advised that if I needed to leave while the proceedings were ongoing I was free to do so but quietly so as not to disrupt the court.

            The trial in question in this court involved a transportation company and a bank. The issue in question was in relation to Long-term interest rate swaps entered into between both companies. The evidence present by the litigants indicated that the laws governing the agreements were the English laws. Although the agreement had initially been generating positive cash flows there had been zero interest rates in the subsequent years following the global recession, and by the year 2015 their combined MtM value was negative in an amount in the excess of 1.3 Billion Euros. The counsel for the claimant argued that the defendants had legally binding obligations in accordance with the contract. In their defence, the counsel for the defendant argued that the company did not have the capacity to enter the swaps and therefore the contract was void regardless of the laws applicable to the agreement. I made an observation that the barristers had impressive legal skills in making their cases before the court. However, the aggressive cross-examination skills may in some cases have the negative impact of discouraging the parties from instituting proceedings before the court. The barristers for the claimant exhibited exemplary communication and organizational skills. The legal representative for the claimant on the other hand did not appear well organized, on several occasions he referred to the solicitors to make clarifications. He also used minimal precedents unlike his counterpart. Once they were done with making their submissions the court orders for a recess and stated that the court would reconvene after 30 minutes. I then decided to proceed to the Family Division of the court an area of law that I have a lot of interest in.

            The Family Division of the court has jurisdiction over matters such as divorce, children rights, probate and medical treatment.[1] Unlike the criminal courts, it did not have a public gallery as most of the proceedings are not open to the public. The court was also not as big as the courtrooms that handle civil matters. The judge was a middle-aged white male with a stern look. I noted that all the people present in the courtroom were whites and thus, there was no representation of people from other ethnic backgrounds. The legal representatives in the Family Court were dressed in business suits and they sat with their clients at the front and close to the judge’s podium. On this day, the first case I witnessed involved a divorce petition hearing. The petitioner’s case was called out and the judge began by inquiring from the barristers whether there were any preliminary matters. The judge then proceeded to ask the barristers to make their opening statements. The legal representative for the petitioner was the first to address the court. He began by giving the facts of the case followed by the list of the witnesses to be cross-examined. He also stated that they would call an expert witness to testify. The barrister appearing for the defendant also made his opening statement stating the number of witnesses they intended to rely on.

The second case involved the reading of the judgment in open court. The ruling was in relation to the case of Robertson v Robertson (2016) EWHC 613 (Fam)[2] that had been heard earlier on in the month. The case involved a claim by the wife for financial remedies from her husband following the divorce. The parties also wanted the court to resolve the issues on child custody including where they would live, the amount of time that the other parent could be allowed contact and how the children would be raised. The parties had gotten married in the year 2004 and had two children of the marriage. During the hearing the wife gave evidence that they had made investments together. The husband on the other hand, acknowledged that she had made contributions to the family by being the primary carer of their home and children. In making his decision, the judge decided to give the first priority to the children who were minors. The judge used precise figures in determining what each of the parties was entitled to with no costs to either of the parties.

I noted that in making his decision, the judge was guide by the Matrimonial causes Act and previously decided cases. He noted that the laws governing the distribution of such property and obligations acquired during the marriage and after divorce have been subject to a lot of developments through both legislation and case law.  According to Section 25(1) of the Act stipulates that the court should put into consideration certain specified matters when deciding how the property should be distributed. [3] In instances where there is a minor, the property should be passed to the wife for the best interests of the child. The section postulates that ‘the court must give consideration to the welfare of any child of the family who has not attained 18-years.’[4] The ruling quoted case of Miller v Miller (2006) in which the court in making its decision had developed guidelines that would be used to determine fairness when dividing matrimonial. The considerations included the needs of the spouses and the aim of the compensation and whether it was intended to act as a redress for the monetary discrepancy or how they had carried out their marriage.[5]

Development in the Legal Foundations Course

The courtroom observation visit helped me learn a lot of general skills regarding legal research and writing. Barrister that had researched well on their cases seemed to have an easier time in the courtroom than those who solely relied on the solicitors. The use of precedent by the counsels was also goes along way in building the cases for the counsels. The observation of the counsels arguing the cases and the decisions of the judges also showed a broad legal analysis of areas of law. It is impressive how a judge is able to articulate the arguments made by both counsels to come up with a response that resolves the complex issues in family law issues. I want to employ similar tactics learnt in my legal analysis. Although I did not work directly with the barristers, my observation of the  proceedings I attended that day is critical in judging the quality of written and oral presentations of those appearing in court on that day. This will be vital in helping me develop my advocacy skills. Lastly, the exercise is important in developing my professional responsibility. A barrister making a case before the court owes both the court and his client a professional duty. The duty to the court involves not giving false statements that mislead the court from giving a fair decision. On the other hand, barristers owe their clients duty to represent them to the best of their capabilities and to uphold confidentiality. The professionalism demonstrated in the courtrooms therefore, changed my pre-existing expectations of how proceedings should be conducted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Bird B, and King A, Ancillary Relief and Financial Orders. UK: Jordan Publishing, 2011

Children and Families Act 2014

Family Division of the High Court. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/courts-tribunals/family-division-of-the-high-court (Accessed 29th March 2016)

Henshaw Report, ‘Recovering Child Support: Routes to Responsibility. 2006

Matrimonial Causes Act 1973

Robertson v Robertson (2016) EWHC 613 (Fam)

The Children’s Act 1989

Todd S, and Brett F, ‘The certainty of a clean Break Variation of maintenance’ (2010)

956 Family Law  [1] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/courts-tribunals/family-division-of-the-high-court (Accessed 29th March 2016)

[2] Robertson v Robertson (2016) EWHC 613 (Fam)

[3] Matrimonial Causes Act 1973

[4] Section 25 (n 3)

[5] Todd S, and Brett F, ‘ The certainty of a clean Break Variation of maintenance’ (2010) 956Family Law