As a Trainee Solicitor in our Family team, Taylor Devenport shares his insights into what to expect in court hearings and what they’re really like to attend.
My first memory of a courtroom is at The London Dungeon. I was 7 years of age and vividly remember being coaxed into a room to be positioned directly below a towering bench awaiting the judge’s entrance. The lights flashed and dimmed, the chambers’ door slammed and a nightmarish figure emerged to take centre stage behind the bench. What followed was a barrage of scowling remarks, shouting and an unprecedented amount of hitting the gavel. The unwitting star defendant? Yours truly. The sentence? Death by hanging. Two minutes later, whilst inconsolable and fearing for my life, I found myself being pulled out of a fire exit by my dad who could not be more apologetic for the trauma he had exposed me to. My death sentence was quickly commuted to a Happy Meal and an afternoon at the London Aquarium. All’s well that ends well.
My current position as a trainee solicitor has allowed me to get over my fears of the court room and to learn that The London Dungeon wasn’t the most accurate representation of a trial.
That being said, for many, the only insight they have ever had into court is that which is shown in television and film. Whilst these types of dramatisations may not be as exaggerated as my experience, it is easy to see why you could be left with a sense of the court being a fearful place and the judge being a jaded, unreasonable and bitter old white male. Below I will seek to cast some of those preconceptions aside and hopefully give those that may be required to attend court in the future, for whatever reason that may be, reassurance that this is a system that has been put in place to serve, protect and bring about justice, not anxiety and fear.
It is a common misconception that you will only attend court for a full trial. However, before you get to this stage, there will often be several preliminary hearings in order for the court to set directions for the rest of the proceedings.
These types of hearings are generally very short, with some being able to be dealt with in around 5 minutes. It will often be the case that the judge will ask questions of the legal representatives present in order to determine what further steps the court will need to take. In most instances, the parties themselves will not even be required to speak.
Whilst this stage in the process is mainly procedural, I would implore you to attend wherever possible, not only because a judge could take issue with your absence, which may impact on your position in the rest of proceedings (and you will usually be expected to attend all hearings unless excused in advance), but more importantly, because it will ensure you get a say in the court directions and timetable. It will give you an opportunity to get a taste of what it is like to be in court before a full trial or final hearing takes place, In doing so, you will hopefully see that, like the rest of us, judges are human too (although I’m still bitter that there’s no Hogwarts equivalent for lawyers).
It goes without saying that some of the discussions between the judge and legal representatives will include legalese but, primarily, it will be an open discussion to decide what will be best for the parties moving forward and to work out a way to bring the matter to a resolution as promptly as possible.
‘Directions’ or ‘review’ hearings
At a ‘directions’ or ‘review’ hearing, these will often be somewhat of an anti-climax, with the hearing itself only lasting between 5 – 30 minutes. Parties and their legal representatives will, however, be required to be available and at court (in person before Covid-19 but by telephone or video call since the pandemic) one hour before the listed hearing time. This is so there can be discussions and negotiations with the judge, expecting parties or their representatives to have agreed the issues in dispute and required directions before coming in to court.
It is important to note that most proceedings in the family and civil court never get to a final hearing, with a large number settled between the parties and their legal team before then.
A preliminary hearing in action
My first court attendance as a trainee was at a ‘First Directions Appointment’ in a family law matter. This was a preliminary hearing, the purpose of which was for the court to give directions for the final hearing set to take place a few weeks’ later. The hearing was held remotely via telephone, as are many hearings at the moment.
Those in attendance were the parties themselves, their legal representatives, three magistrates, a legal advisor and me, who was having flashbacks and couldn’t have been more thankful not to find myself, once again, stood below a towering bench with dimmed and flickering lights!
Jokes aside, the legal advisor and magistrates were courteous and considerate of the unfortunate circumstances that had resulted in the parties’ requiring the court’s assistance. They took a moment to introduce themselves and thank the parties for their attendance. Following this, the parties’ legal representatives were invited to address the bench (the phrase used to describe speaking to the magistrates) on their client’s position and wishes for the final hearing.
This is a perfect example of the fact that the court is looking only to find a resolution that works best for the parties involved and, more importantly in family cases, their child(ren), who will always be the court’s ‘paramount consideration’. The court are so keen to assist parties in reaching an agreement that, when appropriate, you will be given an opportunity to address the court on specific matters, such as how the final hearing will be held as was the case when I attended court.
In this particular case, the matter being considered was whether the final hearing would take place in person or remotely. One party expressed a desire to attend in person due to concerns that the magistrates would not be able to get an accurate feel for each of the parties if they were not face-to-face. The other party preferred that the final hearing take place remotely due to shielding concerns in their household. The bench was sympathetic to both sides but concluded that the final hearing would be conducted remotely via video-link. I was particularly impressed at the fact that one of the magistrates took the time to explain to the parties the reasons behind this, that being that due to ongoing social distancing requirements there is only allowed to be a certain number of people in one court room at any given time. In this particular matter, there were simply too many people to be able to stick to the requirements. The party who requested an in-person hearing was understanding of this and was happy that the court had taken time to hear and consider their position. In its entirety, the hearing lasted no longer than 15 minutes and I believe that it assisted the parties by giving them an idea of what was to come so as to remove some anxiety and allow them to prepare for the final hearing. The parties in this matter had attended court previously on this case.
Unfortunately for 7 year old me, I wasn’t given the opportunity to attend a preliminary hearing and was instead thrown in at the deep-end with what I can only assume was a final hearing. This is probably the stage of the proceedings where the parties will be at their most anxious and understandably so, you are putting life-changing decisions in the hands of strangers.
There is no easy way to address this point but it is important to remember that the people making the decision are impartial and will be guided by laws that have been put in place to protect and serve, not to chastise. In terms of the final hearing itself, it was nowhere near as harrowing as that portrayed at the Dungeon.
A final hearing in action
Rather conveniently, my second court attendance was for a final hearing.
The format of the hearing or trial itself will vary dependent on the subject of the proceedings. You may find that the hearing is listed for a few hours or you may have a trial spread over several days. In my case, it was a hearing that had been listed for one day. The length of the hearing will be dictated by the amount of evidence and cross-examination that will be required. During the one-day hearing, both parties were to be cross-examined (questioned) by their own and the other side’s barrister. We also heard from a professional who had been involved with the parties prior to the proceedings and who had been asked to submit their findings and recommendations to the court in a written report in advance of the hearing, with their attendance at court being to allow the Barrister’s for the parties to question her on this.
In advance of the hearing, the parties were able to have a short private conference with their legal representatives. This is a good opportunity for the parties to raise any final queries or concerns and for the representative to give an indication of how the proceedings will play out.
Turning to the hearing itself, similarly to the preliminary hearing, the magistrates and legal advisor were courteous and considerate and thanked the parties for their attendance. Promptly after introductions, the submissions of the applicant’s (the person who made the court application) representative began. We started with questions being asked of the professional who had worked with the parties.
Of course, each legal representative is obligated to represent their client’s best interests and so it goes without saying that they will be asking and wording their questions in a way to favour their client. However, the representative will have only the court bundle in front of them, a copy of which will have been provided to all parties in good time before the hearing. This bundle will include things such as the witness statements of the parties and any relevant evidence. The representative should direct the person being questioned to the relevant section of the court bundle before asking their question. This will often relate to the witness statement or evidence produced by that same individual. Whilst it can feel like the legal representative is trying to catch you out or trip you up, your focus should always remain on giving an honest account in accordance with that which you have submitted to the court in any statements. The key rule to remember is to be honest and direct in your answers. If you do not overthink the question being put to you, it will be very hard for you to be ‘tripped up’.
The hearing continued in the same fashion with the other side’s legal representative cross-examining the professional and then repeating the process for each of the parties. The hearing can be tiring for all involved and so frequent breaks will be given, in this time you will have the opportunity to reconvene with your legal representative or just to recollect and gather your thoughts.
Once all the evidence has been heard and cross-examination finalised, the parties’ legal representatives will give their final submissions to the bench. This will set out the baseline position of their client and the order that they are asking the court to make. Once this has been finalised the judge or magistrates will step away to decide on judgment. The parties will all be called into court for the final judgment to be made and any next steps confirmed.
Overall, the process of attending court is largely formulaic with the respective formula for any given proceedings being decided based upon the subject matter.
The subject matter will determine whether a case is civil or criminal. It will also decide which court the matter should be tried in, whether that be the Magistrate’s Court, County Court, Crown Court or High Court, etc. This, in turn, will determine who will preside over the proceedings whether that be, magistrates, a deputy district judge and so on. The reason for this is that different types of court and judges will have different powers in terms of decision making.
Irrespective of the nature of the proceedings, the key goal of all parties involved should be to ascertain the truth in order to bring about a just and reasonable resolution. If you keep this in mind when set to attend court, you will hopefully find it easier to cast aside or lessen any anxiety that you may have.
I hope that this summary of two different types of court hearing gives a useful insight into what goes on behind the court’s doors. As for me, now that I am almost a fully-fledged lawyer, I am busy planning how to sue that awful judge at the London Dungeon for misconduct! Watch this space.
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