In the Dock of the Courtroom

My wife and I recently came back from our honeymoon to New Zealand and Australia (we landed in NY at 1am last Saturday morning and returned to our home just before 3am; we both went back to work on Monday). We had a great time in both countries. It was actually my first time outside North America. The only other country I have visited is Canada. Not only do those four countries mostly speak English, the legal system, like our common language, is rooted in British law. I missed work so much that we stopped by a courthouse in Palmerston North, a city on the North Island of New Zealand through which we passed on the way from Hawk’s Bay to Wellington, the capital city. The security officer at the entrance was very friendly and directed us to a murder trial on the second floor. Like the United States, criminal trials are open to the public.

My wife and I sat in the back and watched a direct examination from the Crown Prosecutor and cross-examinations by several defense attorneys. Procedurally it was almost identical to our trials. The case was a five-defendant murder involving a gang. The courtroom was similar to ours with some notable differences. The judge’s bench was elevated and located in the front. There was a jury box to its right and a witness stand to its left. Opposite the bench in the rear of the courtroom was the public gallery. It was separated by glass which is sometimes seen in criminal courts in the United States (not Connecticut, but some Milwaukee courts had this feature). Counsel tables were in the middle. The prosecutors sat in a row of tables in front of the defense tables. The attorneys all wore robes but no wigs. The defendants did not sit with their attorneys. They were in the dock, which in this particular courtroom was behind and to the right of the defense table.

The dock is a secured area in many English-inspired courtrooms in which a criminal defendant sits, often guarded by a court officer. In some courts, it is a cage. In others, an enclosed or elevated place. In Palmerston North it was glassed off, much like a hockey penalty box. The dock, which is still in use in Canada, the UK and Australia as well as New Zealand, and also several other courts throughout the world, did not make its way into American law. In the United States, subject to very few exceptions, criminal defendants sit (or stand in the daily criminal proceedings in Connecticut–we don’t usually get chairs until trial) with their attorneys at the defense table.

I know some of you are probably thinking that I wish I could bring the dock into some of the courts I practice in. As much as I like legal history, I think we have the better set-up for two reasons. One is that clients are vital to trial practice. I can study, prepare and try a case. A clients lives it. Often my clients and I pass notes or even whisper questions and information to each other, especially when an opposing witness on direct says something about the client. The other, more important reason, is the presumption of innocence. Criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty in the United States, common law countries and most other jurisdictions in the world. We take great effort to prevent our clients from looking guilty. Even if a defendant is in custody (not out on bond), jurors are not present when he or she is transported into court by the marshals. Jurors cannot see defendants handcuffed or shackled. Typically attorneys arrange for their clients to be given changes of clothes so that they will not have to wear their jail clothes in front of a jury. Placing defendants in a secured area away from their attorney suggests that they are dangerous and probably guilty.

The Palmerston criminal court and the New Zealand Supreme Court in Wellington were the only law-related parts of a trip that included fine dining and drinking, biking and outdoor activities. The court trips were interesting and also informative, especially if I decide to expand my practice or get into some trouble on my travels.

Kia ora,

Chris


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