Behind the Scenes at Local Court
Courtrooms and courts are wondrous magical places where justice is served, the good guys win and gorgeous lawyers vigorously defend the rights of the downtrodden and forgotten. Well, at least that’s what the movies and TV has told me my whole life.
It was with this in mind that many moons ago I began my career within the hallowed halls of the justice system. Tens of thousands of cases, telephone calls, counter enquiries and affidavits later, my optimism may have been replaced with realism, and my empathy reserves may have been slightly depleted, but in my boots I am still the same idealist that stepped through the doors all those years ago. The people I work with are all good people trying to do the best they can in situations that are not always ideal.
There are the overworked duty lawyers spending only 3-5 minutes seeking instructions from clients they only met 6 minutes ago and then making an appearance to a crowded mention court and delivering a plea of guilty submission in less than 5 minutes. If you want to see real skill in short form advocacy, sit and watch duty solicitors in a busy mention list. It is truly amazing that they remember their client’s name, let alone any mitigating circumstances. They’re incredibly skilled lawyers.
You’ll also see Police Prosecutors negotiating and haggling over the details of a brief against seasoned defence barristers and holding their own. Never ever underestimate the legal skill and knowledge of Police Prosecutors. They are also a much-needed voice for the victims of crime during these discussions and are, although they would loathe my saying it, amongst the most compassionate and caring people in the building.
There are also social workers helping homeless people seek accommodation for them and their children, corrections staff trying to help clients who are not wanting help but they keep trying nevertheless, and Salvation Army volunteers holding a hand and counselling distraught families or even just sneaking a jelly bean into a bench clerk that has been running a court for 6 hours without a break and who is looking a bit peaky.
Then there are the lawyers. The best ones by far are those who are amiable, courteous to court staff and police and understand how the process works. This enables them to give the most effective advocacy for their client.
The judiciary have brilliant legal minds but also the required pragmatism that comes from applying the law in such a busy environment. They are intelligent, fair and most surprisingly to some, very friendly and kind. There are also a few with an absolutely wicked sense of humour that make the days go much faster and brighter in court.
In between all of these people and all of this chaos, are the court staff. These people can be your best friend when you most need them, so be patient, kind and respectful.
The staff members that you as a lawyer are most likely to see are the Bench Clerks. These people are in the court before the Magistrate and are in there until much after court finishes, completing paperwork. They are in charge of paperwork, administering oaths to witnesses, keeping track of exhibits tendered and recording the day’s proceedings.
There are also registrars – quasi-judicial officers empowered under various Acts to make orders of the court in certain circumstances. These people are hardworking former bench clerks who have completed over 3 years of training and exams to be in the positions they are in. Many Registrars also have completed law degrees. They are keen legal minds that can decipher complex common law and statute at short notice. They are up to date on all of the current laws relating to their jurisdiction and can explain in simple terms the practical ramifications of any changes in law or policy.
On any given day, a Registrar may:
Appear at the bar table as a “friend of the court” and make submissions from the bar table.
Interview battered, bruised and bloodied applicants for intervention orders, while also distracting the applicant’s shell-shocked children with crayons, toys and books.
They also issue warrants, explain civil procedure to baby lawyers, and coordinate the hundreds of cases throughout the entire court complex.
Registrars also answer queries from the general public at the registry counter or on the phone. This includes being subjected to barrages of abuse and threats that would make your mother faint.
In our cast of thousands, we also have baby lawyers trying to find their way and discovering this is nothing like what their lecturer said, or worse, not like what TV told them. On this note, GO TO COURT. The first time you go into a courtroom should not be with a client in tow. If you plan on practicing, take a day off and go sit in on a few matters at your local court. See mentions, remands, bail applications, contested summary hearings, general applications, committals, trials, and see how it all operates.
So there you have it. The good guys might not always win and the lawyers aren’t always gorgeous, but on the whole, the people that come through these doors at local court are fighting for some form of justice. And here’s a secret: I still find standing in courtrooms magical, and I hope one day you do too.
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