Having clocked up nearly 30 years in law firms since I was a teenager, I have seen the inside of many a Courtroom from Leeds in England, to the Court of Appeal in Queensland.
Family Court interim hearings and trials, personal injury compensation trials, contractual disputes and varying levels of criminal charges, it has been an interesting ride!
However by far the most gut wrenching, strap yourself to the chair trials are the criminal jury trials that I have done.
The relatively minor charges like assault and the like are dealt with in the Magistrates Court. However the more serious charges, what we lawyers call “indictable” offences, must be dealt with by a higher Court, usually the District Court. This usually means a trial is heard before a judge and jury. The judge applies the law and ensures the trial is fair but the jury must determine the facts and ultimately determines whether your client is guilty or not guilty.
Some years ago I acted for a true gentleman who unfortunately missed a stop sign and killed a person as a result. Prior to this incident, my client had been driving for over 30 years and did not have one speeding offence. He had no criminal history.
The intersection in question had claimed two other lives through accidents prior to my client’s accident. Our investigations revealed these facts through the local Council which had been asking the Federal Government for black spot funding for the intersection. This means that the Federal Government was being asked to spend money on the intersection given that it had been identified as one in need of attention due to the fact that there had been two fatalities, along with other less serious accidents.
At a criminal jury trial, the Crown places all of its evidence before the Court firstly and then it is left to the Defence (myself and my barrister) to decide which witnesses will be called. There is no obligation to actually call your own client as a witness. In this case the decision was made for our client to give evidence and as expected, he presented as an honest and forthright person before the jury.
After we called all of our witnesses, the judge gave certain instructions to the jury and then the jury was sent out to a room to deliberate, that is to decide whether my client was guilty or not guilty.
That couple of hours (sometimes it takes longer sometimes it takes less), is the longest few hours you can ever work as a lawyer. Sitting in a room with your client who is sweating bullets, knowing that if the finding is guilty with such a serious charge, your client is going away to jail is tough work. While this drama plays out, there is little you can do as a lawyer, other than to put on your poker face and try and remain as calm for your client as you possibly can. I must confess that beneath that poker face my insides are usually twisting and turning as empathy is one of the reasons I joined the legal profession.
The Court bailiff knocks on the door, gives you that look in the eye and nods. The jury has reached a decision.
I walk back into the Court with my client and barrister. The jury foreman is asked by the judge to confirm that a verdict has been reached.
“We find the defendant…not guilty Your Honour”.
Then come the feelings of sheer relief for my client who remains stony-faced out of respect for the family members of the person who died in the accident and who are in Court to hear the verdict. The rollercoaster ride continues as I feel for the family of the innocent fellow who died as a result of this accident and for his two very young children who miss their Daddy. I know in my heart that my client will carry the heavy burden of his mistake for the rest of his life.
Sometimes I leave Court feeling very satisfied with the result. Then there are days when, despite your best efforts, you wonder “what just happened there?”
And then there are those cases, usually those involving the death of a person, when you leave knowing there are no winners here today.