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The whole truth and nothing but

Stephen Thomas explains how to get the best value from group visits to observe Magistrates' and Crown court processes.

The media carnival that surrounds the impending O J Simpson trial is another example of the American appetite for courtroom drama. In England the law makes such televised coverage impossible and it is only through a legal loophole in the 1925 Criminal Justice Act, as it applies in Scotland, that the BBC has been able to make its five-part series The Trial, which started last Friday on BBC2.

Whether or not courts can be televised, it is easy to see them in action at first hand. Where courts are open it is possible to walk in off the street, encumbered only by a security check, and exercise the right of any citizen over 14 years old to sit in the public gallery and see often fascinating cases. The experience adds much to the study of crime and the law in personal and social education or any part of the secondary curriculum.

The British court system is multi-layered. Magistrates' and Crown courts offer the best opportunities for observation. The Magistrates' Court deals with less serious civil and criminal cases which carry sentences of up to six months or fines of under Pounds 5,000. It also screens evidence before an accused is committed to the Crown Court, although this will change with the new Criminal Justice Act.

Ninety-eight per cent of all criminal work is processed in the Magistrates' Court: theft, motoring offences, criminal damage and public order cases. The Youth Court, which deals with children and young persons up to 18 years old, and the Family Court, which deals with cases such as abuse and custody, are not open to the public. However, individual teachers may be able to get special permission to observe these courts.

Serious criminal trials, such as murder, rape or robbery are heard before a judge and jury in the Crown Court. It also deals with cases sent by the Magistrates' Court for a decision on sentence and can hear appeals against their decisions.

Ninety per cent of all civil cases are heard in one of the 300 county courts, which are concerned with disputes about contracts, rent arrears, bankruptcy, insolvency, debt recovery, mortgage repossession and divorce matters. Most cases are examined by a judge "in chambers" and only rarely with a jury in open court.

I have spoken to the Chief Clerk of a Crown Court and the Clerk to the Justices of a Magistrates' Court and come up with the following practical advice for organising court visits with students.

o Courts sit all year except Christmas, New Year and Bank Holidays. Business starts at 10am and may carry on until about 4.30pm, but the morning is the best time.

o It is important to make a preliminary visit to find out about the layout of the court and get some insight into the various legal processes. In the Crown Court, for example, the business will be taken up with pleas and sentencing, as well as full-blown trials. You also need to check on the capacity of the public gallery.

o The Magistrates' Court is the best place to see a variety of cases from beginning to end in a short time, with the Guilty Plea or Remand Court having the most rapid turnover. The average trial lasts between two and three hours. In the Crown Court cases are likely to be longer and more absorbing but can be frustrating because of adjournments, the fact that they will often be spread over several days and because sentencing can take place up to three weeks after the conclusion of the trial.

o Contact the listing office of the court before a visit to get an idea of the range of cases being tried in each of the courts. This avoids sending youngsters to trials inappropriate for their age group or too complex, which is often a problem with fraud cases.

o Policy varies around the country, but it is sometimes possible to organise a preparatory talk by a member of the court staff. Magistrates will often visit schools. Contact the court itself to arrange this.

o Preparation is essential. Students will need to know something about the roles of the Crown Prosecution Service, the judge, jury, usher, the court clerk, barristers, solicitors and magistrates, and court etiquette, such as standing when the judge or magistrates enter or leave.

o Courts and the lobbies and corridors around them can be unsavoury places. It is advisable to take only small groups on visits, to plan carefully and to know where you are going. A group should leave space in the public gallery for others.

o Visitors need to be tactful about what they say, especially during adjournments. Friends and relations of a defendant may be sitting near them in the public gallery.

o The way a visit should be structured will depend on the needs of the students. There will be opportunities to observe such things as the presentation of evidence and the construction of an argument, the techniques used by legal counsel and patterns of age, gender and social background of offenders. Check with the usher if students intend to make notes. Cameras and tape-recorders are not allowed.

o Address requests for further information to the Chief Clerk of the Crown Court, and to the Clerk to the Justices of the Magistrates' Court.

o The Central Office of Information produces a short booklet, The Lord Chancellor's Department, which gives a brief account of the British court system, and other useful guides. These can be obtained from the court.

o For more detail, the textbook Law for GCSE by Peter Shears with its accompanying folder of classroom resources, published by Pitman Press, is a good source.

o A new edition of the four-part Understand the Law project, published by Hodder and Stoughton and the Law Society, comes out in February 1995. The second volume will include some very useful photocopiable resources for a mock trial as well as materials to help prepare students for a court visit.

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