Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Week with a Defence Barrister – My Experience

by Katherine Tobin

Looking at possibly entering into the field of law as a career, I was eager to begin the week of work experience, and, I must confess, a little anxious, having very little idea what I was entering into. However, after having met Mrs Jones, the defence barrister I was to be shadowing for the week, I was in no doubt I was in good hands. Despite her rather loud and chatty first impression,(which I found out later was very effective in court), it was immediately clear she was extremely knowledgeable,  and as she talked to me on the way to the robing room, she explained the first case of the week to me.

This case was a grievous bodily harm case (GBH) which entailed a man punching another man twice in the jaw, and consequently fracturing it in two places. However, during the period of time spent in the robing room (where the barristers change into their wigs and gowns), Mrs Jones managed to talk to the prosecutor of the case, and was able to lessen the number of punches inflicted to one punch, thus reducing the seriousness of the case, and the possible charges. It soon became clear to me that the robing room could be a place of bargains between the lawyers on their cases, and I saw many examples of lawyers confronting their opposition on their case details. It was also a surprise to me how friendly the lawyers were to each other – my first impression of the lawyers being complete enemies on a case was soon dissolved by the friendly chit chat around the room.

The first day of the GBH case was a summary of the facts and the case from both sides to the judge, to see whether the judge, and the lawyers, deemed the case necessary to go to trial. Mrs Jones was able to use a case worker she was friendly with to obtain a judge suitable for her view of the case, and was therefore able to express a more tailored defence statement which was received well by the judge. After some deliberation over the seriousness of the crime, Mrs Jones was able to get a minimum sentence for the man, resulting in a fine and community service, which was given as a sentence the next day. The defendant was incredibly grateful for the barrister’s help, and Mrs Jones was happy as the case was resolved without having to go to trial, giving her the day off on the Friday.

On the second day, I was able to sit in on the summary of a murder case, where the four defendants had been found guilty, three of murder, and one, a girl, of inciting the murder. Although I was not present for the majority of the trail, the defence and prosecution statements and an explanation from Mrs Jones was enough for me to understand the basis of the case, and why the defendants’ sentences given were so high – minimum sentences given were 36 years, 34 years, 32 years and 25 years for the girl. After the convictions were presented, Mrs Jones and I headed down to the jail rooms to discuss asking for a sentence reduction in years, via appeal, with the defendant who recieved 34 years. This finalised the case, and so I was able to go home early!

The final two days were spent watching a sexual harassment case. This was not one of Mrs Jones’ cases, as she had finished her work for the week, but as the case was an open one (open to members of the general public), I was able to sit in and watch the first two days of the trial, including defence and prosecution cross examinations. This was an interesting experience as in sexual harassment cases it is usually the case, that the evidence is based upon allegations rather than forensic evidence. This means that in the court room it is, in simplest terms, one person’s word against another’s. This made it very hard for me as an observer, and I am sure the members of the jury, to ascertain the truth, and the case was likely to be won on how well the barristers performed. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the completion of the case, so I remain unaware of the verdict.

Overall I was thoroughly impressed with my week’s work experience as I was able to experience the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings of cases when they came to court, and understand, through sitting in on various confidential client meetings, how Mrs Jones was able to construct and shape the case to be convincing, but also to fit with the client’s behaviour (for example summing up the pros and cons of pleading guilty to the GBH client, who as a witness in a trial, would have been poor). The week has inspired me, not only to keep on considering law as a future career, but also to continue to look further into her job. I was lucky enough to be able to spend a second week with Mrs Jones, from which I also gained much experience (there were burglaries, stabbings, sexual harassment and more) and would be keen to go and sit in a court for a day to watch cases and the work of the barristers as they come to court. I would like to thank Mrs Jones for being an excellent mentor, and in the future, plan to look into the preparation of the cases to see what goes on before the court presentation.

For any of you thinking about doing work experience, I would recommend it most highly, as even if it is not quite as exciting as you thought it would be (as was the case with my second placing in a different area of work), there is a lot that can be taken from the experience, and a week work’s experience that you enjoy can be very inspiring.

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