Last month, we looked at the etiquette involved in accompanying your boss to court. This month, we’ll have a look at what happens when you get there, what you can expect to happen and how you can help.
Whether you’re attending court on a criminal or a civil case, one of the first things that will happen when you arrive is that your boss will have a conference with the client. In this article, however, I’m going to concentrate on what happens in civil cases, including family cases.
The pre-trial conference will normally take place in one of the meeting rooms in the court building. Usually, your boss has quite a lot to update the clients about, and vice versa. The days just before a trial tend to be ones of intense activity, as both sides explore the possibility of settling the case and thus avoiding part or all of the costs of the trial. It may well be that the negotiations are still going on, and the clients will need to hear from your boss about the most recent developments as soon as they arrive.
In most family and civil cases, there will be a final attempt to agree to a settlement at what is called ‘the door of the court’. This is an interesting and absorbing process, and though you may be asked to stay with the clients rather than following your boss through the negotiating procedure, you will still see how the process works at first hand.
If you have been asked along to take notes, begin straight away, not forgetting the time that the conference started, and the names of the people present. Identify each of the speakers by their initials, including the barrister if there is one, and then take down in summary the advice that is being given and the responses to it. If you do not have shorthand, you will not be able to take down every word, but you do need to have an accurate summary.
The pre-trial conference is a great opportunity to watch the legal process in action and to see how the work you have been carrying out as a Legal Secretary has direct relevance to the case. Witness statements, pleadings and offer letters that you have helped prepare will be discussed in detail with the clients, and most secretaries enjoy seeing how their work takes on a new significance as they see how it fits in with the whole of the case.
Having spoken to their respective clients in private, the lawyers from both sides (or all sides, if there are more than two parties in the case) will get together by themselves to talk matters over and try for one final time to reach an agreement. The amount of time they have to do this depends on the situation with the court listing. In the County Court, it is usual for several matters all to be listed with the same start time, so that the Judge can see which cases are possibly going to settle and which ones are more likely to go to a full trial. Generally speaking, the Judge will indicate that s/he wants to know how the parties are getting on by a fixed time, so the negotiations will be going on against the clock. If there is no real progress by the time the Judge has fixed, then the trial will begin.
Your boss will be coming back to the clients throughout this period, reporting to them about new developments and asking them about new proposals. Don’t forget to keep taking notes if that’s what you were asked along to do! You do not take notes of the conversations that you are having with the clients while your boss is out of the room; these are usually not concerned with the case anyway, and you should leave discussions about legal points to the lawyers.
There are times, though, when your boss is elsewhere negotiating and the client tells you something that you can see is important, and that your boss does not seem to know. Clients are sometimes intimidated by the lawyers in the case but feel much more comfortable talking to you, and will tell you more. If you believe that what you’ve been told is important, it is worth taking your boss to one side and explaining it. Then your boss can decide whether it is something that should be discussed with the client or not.
If negotiation fails, then the case will be called on, and you will have the opportunity to observe the trial. As we discussed in the previous article on attending court, make the most of your chance to see things at first hand by noting down any queries that you have about practice or procedure, and spend some time with your boss after the hearing to get answers to your questions.
Attending court is always a worthwhile experience for a Legal Secretary, so if you are offered the opportunity to go, take it – and make the most of it!