My week was mainly split between ‘e-Learning’ in the office and observing at court.
On Tuesday, I spent the morning shadowing an advocate in the Magistrates’ Court. This advocate was a CPS pupil last year; thus, sitting behind him, I had a useful ‘window’ on how my career should look a year from now.
I took notes during proceedings. Despite what I’ve long heard (that the best advocates rely on pens in court, not keyboards), I decided to have a go at taking notes on my laptop. I found this to be more comfortable and less taxing than keeping pace all day with a pen. Notes can be e-mailed to one’s supervisor, if required. And pupils needn’t worry about the legibility of their handwriting. So, from now on, it’s digital all the way!
I observed the remainder of a part-heard trial, a driving offence, which came down to who the magistrates most believed: the defendant driver, a man of good character, or the police officer, whose account was not supported by the obtained CCTV footage. The verdict was “not guilty.” Their Worships avoided casting doubt on the officer’s credibility by explaining that the CCTV footage failed to cover the entirety of the incident. Thus, as there was insufficient corroborating footage, the defendant must be given the benefit of any doubt.
I also observed a trial in which the defendant (who represented himself) was charged with possession of a bladed article — a lock knife, which the defendant claimed to need for his work. The defendant did not deny possession. Therefore, as the prosecution case was largely uncontested, no witnesses were called. Instead, the prosecutor simply read out their statements and produced evidence of the knife. The defendant then gave evidence, presenting his defence of lawful excuse from the witness box. However, his account did not stand up to cross-examination. In finding him guilty, Their Worships drew an adverse inference from the defendant’s silence at the police station.
I learned that in the Magistrates’ Court, where a defendant is unrepresented, he enjoys the right to make a closing speech (or “short closing statement” as the court is keen to stress!), whilst the prosecutor does not. I suppose the rationale for this rule is that an unrepresented defendant has the deck stacked against him, so the final scene should be his alone.
I also learned (happily) that the CPS is less concerned with getting convictions than it is with getting past “half-time.” Thus, an advocate will not be criticised for failing to secure ‘guilty’ verdicts. The prime concern is ensuring that there is a safe and sensible case for the defendant to answer to. This means ensuring that all witnesses come up to proof — ideally, saying the same things in court that they have said in their witness statements. The issue of innocence or guilt then falls to the magistrates to decide.
Where witnesses fail to come up to proof, at the close of the prosecution case (i.e. half-time), the defence may make a submission of no-case-to-answer. This is rare, but it does happen. Sometimes, even with the best prosecutor in the world, witnesses will contradict one another and fail to give accurate accounts. When this happens, a “no case” submission is bound to succeed. But it could also succeed where a prosecutor was ill-prepared for trial. Therefore, the threat of a “no case” submission should motivate us to prepare fastidiously. And this applies in both the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court.
On Thursday, I sat in Birmingham Crown Court to see the opening of a high-profile case: R v Smith and Dunn.
The trial is one of manslaughter by gross negligence, involving the tragic death of a young Midlands boy by drowning. After making myself known to the usher, I was invited to sit with the press (much closer to proceedings). I thought it was impressive the way prosecuting counsel managed to present the case as a short story to the jury — without sounding condescending, and without coming off as vindictive towards the grieving parents in the dock.
The opening was a matter of “say-what-you-do-then-do-what-you-say.” Hence, witnesses were called to testify as to those parts of the prosecutor’s narrative which they claim to have observed. Cross-examination was about challenging the idea that the parents were negligent.
On Friday, I was given my first Pre-Charge Advice to write. Happily, the case related to an area in which I’ve expressed an interest in specialising: cyber-crime. In particular, the complaint is one of harassment committed online against a person in the public eye. I had to read a series of abusive e-mails, plus the complainant’s witness statement, then decide whether the elements of the offence were made out — and thus, whether to charge. Doubtless, my work will be checked by my supervisor who will give me some feedback.
In terms of e-Learning, I have so far completed the following modules:
- Introduction to Prosecuting (inc. CPS Code & Bail Act);
- 12 Messages of Case Management;
- Effective Case Management and the CrimPR;
- Custody Time Limits (part 1);
- Law and Policy Digest Tests: March, June & Sep 2017;
- Learning Needs Assessment (LNA);
- Road Traffic Offences;
- Driving Offences;
- Damage to Property;
- Offences Against the Person;
- Public Order Offences.
For each completed module, I have printed the supporting materials and arranged these in distinct plastic wallets. It is my plan to learn from the materials, then return to each module in due course to check that my grasp has improved.
End of week three.
As a postscript, I attended a lawyers’ social event on one of the evenings this week. It was a celebratory gathering for the local pupil barristers and trainee solicitors. Some (like me) were just starting out, whilst others were nearing the end of their training period. Naturally, we got chatting about our respective placements, and a couple of pupils in chambers teased me for choosing a “cushy life” at the Employed Bar. I didn’t mind, though. As a man with a new family, it’s a relief to be able to practise criminal law without worrying where my next brief is coming from. I’m also looking forward to a steady income — whether I’m arguing in court, advising in-house, or doing a bit of both.
In short, I’m chuffed to be here and wouldn’t change a thing!
[Published with the permission of my line manager]