Civil trials: a law student perspective

Civil trials: a law student perspective

by Lily Bussell-Poole, law student, work experience Despite having four years of law school under my belt, many of my courtroom expectations have (embarrassingly) come from legal dramas. Suits, Janet King, Law and Order- I love them all. But the real life courtroom is a different place to the one depicted on our screens, and my recent experience observing a jury trial in the County Court certainly corrected some of my misunderstandings. Firstly, the size of the courtroom. Stepping into the County Court for the first time, I was taken aback by the intimacy of the space. Secondly, where were all the people? Unlike the trials in Law and Order, the room was not packed with onlookers. In fact, there was rarely more than a handful of us in the room. Generally, those present included the judge, his associate, an officer of the court, the barristers and solicitors representing each party, the plaintiff, a representative of the defendant and in this case, a jury of six people. A civil trial can be conducted either before a judge alone or by a judge with a jury. However, a jury has to be expressly applied for, and I was surprised to learn that they are a somewhat of a rarity in civil trials. I originally thought a jury must have been our preference, why wouldn't we want six everyday people hearing our case? Surely they would be sympathetic to our client, a sweet and vulnerable Vietnamese woman who had been injured at work. The truth is, I spent the next 13-days trying to read the minds of the jurors, and in doing so came to appreciate why they are treated with such trepidation by plaintiff lawyers. Did one juror just roll her eyes? What is that juror scribbling down so furiously? After ten days at trial, the jury asked a question that indicated they were considering irrelevant matters, and on day 11 we (unsuccessfully) applied to have them discharged. I quickly learnt how unpredictable juries could be and why they are not the preferred method amongst plaintiff lawyers. I also came to appreciate what an emotional roller coaster the trial process can be. One day I'd be confident the verdict would come back in our client's favour. Then the defence would make a strong argument or successfully undermine a witness's evidence, and doubts would creep in. However, a trial is designed to highlight the strengths and weakness of each sides case, and it is important to remember that the plaintiff must only establish their case on the balance of probabilities. This is a lesser standard than in criminal trials and requires the plaintiff to establish that the existence of a fact is more likely to have happened than not. Finally, my expectation that a trial would be'just another day at work' for the solicitors and barristers involved in the case proved incorrect. The trial was emotionally taxing and as a 'newbie' to the trial process, I felt every high and low alongside the plaintiff and her family. When the jury was discharged to consider their verdict, I felt sick. But the truth is, it was no less emotional for the plaintiff's solicitor or barrister who were hugely invested in the case. The lawyers I observed cared deeply for their client and fought hard for her every step of the way. So my final observation, it's not just the TV lawyers who care - the real ones do too.

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