I have just completed my mock conference assessment today. I was nervous about how this would go, and what I would score. I had done my preparation but there is a significant element of flexibility required. The criminal conference is one form of assessment and something that is required to pass the course. It involves talking to your client before a court appearance for example.
In the type of conference I had today, a plea before venue and allocation hearing was scheduled to take place immediately after the meeting with my client. This means I need to establish the facts of the case, to confirm whether my client has satisfied the elements of the offences, whether they have a defence, how they would like to plead (after advising them on the strengths and weaknesses of their case) and choosing a court if pleading not guilty, and if they have a choice.
It sounds simple, but the mock assessment was 20 minutes. The real assessment will also be 20 minutes. This is not a lot of time. I did manage to get through all my points in time, but, I still missed things and could have done better. I can always do better. The conference was also recorded, which is great and conducive to learning.
At the core of a conference is the barrister client relationship and being able to act in the best interests of each client. This is a barristers core duty, and one which is subject to your duty to the court. Too much legalese? The core duties are not secrets of the state, although, they are probably not known by the majority of British citizens. Rest assured that barristers are independent and regulated by the Bar Standards Board and their chambers to an extent, you won’t find an incompetent barrister for the most part… yes, some barristers are bad, that is not usual.
A criminal case will be heard in the magistrates court initially. This is 99% of criminal cases. Only the most serious of offences will go straight to the crown court. The crown court has more sentencing powers, and as such, the process is strict, can take longer (getting a hearing date could take a while), is more formal with wigs and gowns, a legally educated judge and the most important part that defendants need to know, a jury!
12 lay people, from all walks of life, not legally educated, able to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. The topic of much debate. Without a jury what will the crown court become? It is the best system that England has in place, and is a lot fairer than other countries. EU countries are not subject to common law like England and Wales. Rather, they are utilising a system of Civil law, derived from Roman law, which codifies the law… get it? The codes cover everything (supposedly) and rather than using previous case law, will instead rely on these codes for the sentence. EU law was rather enjoyable, and learning about the complications of cross border consumer law was brain stunning. I feel relieved that I achieved a decent mark in my undergraduates studies on this module.
Back to the conference. As mentioned a defendant will initially appear before the magistrates court. A bench of 3 non legally educated people, who are usually case hardened having listened to a lot of similar cases, and therefore more likely to find you guilty and sentence you. They are volunteers, yes, you heard me correctly, the 3 people about to decide your fate are volunteers from the public. You do have an automatic right of appeal though, which is a bonus, you don’t have that in crown court. The bench of 3 could instead be replaced on the day of your appearance by a district judge. These sit alone and are legal experts. Why they don’t just use these all the time is beyond me, and probably would help too.
If the client has any previous convictions, my understanding is that this will be of detriment and if it is a similar offence, could result in a much harsher sentence. As for defences, they are available and are limited in how they can be applied. If someone is charged with an assault – common assault at law which involved physical contact – they can use a defence if they committed the offence as the result of acting in self defence. You may know this, but the burden of proof remains with the prosecution to prove that the amount of force used was unreasonable. The defending barrister will have to prove that the client acted in self defence, and if they do this successfully, that is a complete defence.
Other defences are available, and essentially they are either a lack of mens rea – the mental element of the offence, and actus reus – the physical element of the offence. Most disputes in cases will focus on the mental element, as to whether the defendant intended to do something. After intention there is a whole host of other reasons for the crime being committed, such as recklessness, negligence, mistake, duress, etc. The actus or act is much easier to prove than the mental element, but again, this is something I love about English law, that it provides a fair a due process.
‘It is called Magna Charta, not that it is great in quantity … but in respect of the great importance and weightinesse of the matter.’Edward Coke
Would you take the advise of your barrister to plead guilty or not guilty? Do you know that you don’t have to give a plea? Are you a good person of good character with no previous convictions? Although lengthy quotes from magna carter are not used by barristers in conference, they no less have to engage with the client and establish the details of their case. Without the details, you might be incompetent.
Needless to say the rest, I was told that I was competent, along with the other student. This is good I guess. The opposite would be incompetent, which would be rather embarrassing… Now I need to prepare for the full assessment and try not to mess it up, preparation is key.