Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Part Heard

I have chaired the second day of a part-heard case in each of the last two weeks, and I have another in my diary for next month. None of these cases was originally expected to last for more than a day, but it can become apparent as a trial proceeds that time is running out. There may be a late start, perhaps due to human error, or problems with transport. There may be slow advocacy, which can see a simple cross-examination stretch out for a couple of hours. Multiple defendants each require their own lawyer, and anything involving an interpreter takes at least half as long again as it would with a native English speaker. Unrepresented defendants, of whom we see more and more as legal aid budgets are cut, are always slow, because they do not understand the procedure, and everything has to be gone through point by point to ensure fairness.
I usually review matters after the lunch break, and ask the parties for time estimates, because now that our admin has been relocated to another courthouse we cannot arrange the next sitting unless we call them before about 4 p.m. Then we have to get our diaries out. With a bench of three, a clerk, two advocates, and witnesses and defendants this is not always easy, and it is quite usual to have to resume some weeks ahead. In extreme cases it can be months, because the decision to start again ('de novo' as the lawyers like to say) is to be avoided if at all possible because of inconvenience to witnesses, and the possibility that one or more of them will have had enough, and refuse to come back. This last possibility can be used by an unscrupulous defence brief; delay things long enough, get the trial abandoned, and see the CPS drop it when the witnesses say they won't come back.
Once we do sort out a date the bench usually lodge their notes in the court file, and we review them before the resumed sitting. Sometimes I come back without the slightest recollection of a case, but it all drops into place when I go through my notes and clear up salient points with my colleagues. The court then has to cancel the bench that is down to sit on the rearranged date to make room for us (not a popular move) and all being well, we are in business.
These complications are the reason why I tend to lean on advocates at 2 p.m., to see if certain witnesses can be agreed and read 'section 9' and whether the defence can put in 'section 10' admissions to avoid raking over the bleeding obvious. I don't always get away with it, but it's worth a try.

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