Snail Racing (The Legal System)

Posted: Sun, 13 November 2005 | permalink | No comments

I previously mentioned in a sidenote to another post that I've been involved in a court case over the last few weeks, and I promised a few people I'd blog about my adventures there. Obviously, not quite everything can be discussed in an open forum, but I checked with the legal beagles and I'm OK as long as I stick to generalities. Which is fine by me, since the detailed specifics are actually immensely boring.

Executive Summary: It's the law Jim, but not as the TV shows it.

I have to recommend that everybody spend a bit of time watching a case or two at their local court. It's surprising how different reality is to what you see on TV (of course, Australian courts are going to be different to the US courts we primarily see on TV, but even the dramatic representations of Australian courts I've seen are fairly inaccurate). The legal system, while appearing to be out in it's own little world, is a vital and integral part of most societies, so it's useful to have at least a basic idea of what goes on in them -- not because you'll end up in one (and even if you did, your lawyer will tell you what to do) but because it's an interesting insight into a part of our world that often affects us, but we don't like to look at. (Going and watching your houses of parliament, or an abboitoir, is a similar thing).

Second, if you can possibly avoid it, don't get involved in a case. Not as a defendant, not as a litigant (in a civil case), and not as a witness. Litigants and defendants get screwed because they're stuck in a small room with a bunch of people they don't know or particularly like, for days or months, with a limited understanding of what's going on. Boooooooring. For witnesses, it's a different kind of pain. But I'll leave the details of that for another post.

One of the things that quite surprised me is the general good nature and decent relationship between all of the legal professionals involved. They're willing to help each other out, they concede points graciously, and there's a surprising amount of banter between all of the lawyers and (in some cases) the witness as well. I'm told that this was peculiar in my case because I was involved in a voir dire[1], and everyone's on their more formal behaviour when there's a jury in the room. At times, it was almost a pleasure to watch the proceedings -- like a slightly dry but nonetheless compelling play. Most of the time, though, I characterised as "Snail Racing" -- about the most dull activity one could imagine, but nevertheless you just can't tear your attention away in case something interesting happens while you're blinking.

When I say that the lawyers are good natured, that's not to imply that they're not vehemently arguing their case. Toward the end of the voir dire, in particular, counsel for the defence started to get rather vocal as to the lack of proper procedure on the part of the Crown. Over the entire voir dire, too, both counsel were always pressing hard and always trying to get their case seen in the best light. But their vigourous pursuit of the case never got personal or competitive. I think that's actually something that a lot of free software people could take on board (myself included) -- argue strongly for your position, but never internalise it or make it personal. Your position may be rather important (the defendant in my case was looking at up to 14 years if he got sent down) but making it a personal attack isn't going to help your case.

I was amazed at the speed with which counsel picked up on new concepts and ideas. Unsurprisingly, the expertise I provided was quite technical, and counsel were not particularly computer literate. However, over lunches, I was able to essentially brain dump fair chunks of knowledge at the barrister, and he then went inside and laid it all out, usually accurately and very good presentation. It's also intensely satisfying to know that the questions that are being presented were suggested by you, and the skillful way that the ideas and queries were weaved together. I guess you'd get a similar buzz writing a play and then watching skilled performers bring it to life -- not necessarily exactly the way you imagined, but with an undeniable skill and vibrance.

I've got a lot more material about my adventures in the legal system, which I'll be posting over the next while, but I figure this is probably well enough to be going on with for now.

1. A voir dire (as explained to me) is a sort of "trial within a trial", used to determine a point of fact or the admissability of a particular piece of evidence. It is run in the absence of a jury. They're only supposed to run for a couple of days; apparently mine was extraordinary at three weeks, although mention was made of a six week marathon (in the context of "this better not be like $OTHER_VOIR_DIRE").

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