Advocacy in the magistrates' court: top 10 tips

Solicitor advocate Sarah Newens (Higher Rights Civil) shares tips on how to prepare for a case at the magistrates’ court.

It’s important to prepare properly so that the bench fully understands your client’s case. These tips come from my perspective as a solicitor advocate whose most recent experience is in family cases. However, many of the same principles apply to criminal advocacy.

In summary, know:

  • your client
  • your case
  • the other side’s case
  • your bundle

Client care

1. Check your client is ready for their court date

Make sure your client and any witnesses know the court date, and raise any issues relating to special measures – for example, the need for a translator – with the court beforehand.

2. Avoid delays by filing early

File your bundle with the court in good time. It’s a good idea to have the email or letter filing the bundle, or raising any issues, with you in court. This will show you’ve done everything needed for the case to proceed.

3. Talk about dress code

It goes without saying that you should dress professionally, but sometimes it’s worth talking to your client about what they’ll wear. I knew of a solicitor who was rumoured to keep a spare suit for his clients in his office.

4. Help your client manage their stress levels

Be realistic with your client about possible outcomes before the case starts. In family cases, many clients are naturally vulnerable people who are unable to give up their children to a care order.

They want the court to make a decision, and it’s a question of managing their right to a fair trial and putting their case without making them stressed.

At some point, it’s worth taking a course on managing difficult people. Courts are stressful places.

Techniques such as taking your client outside to get some fresh air or a cup of tea often work wonders.

Preparing questions

5. Consider your goals

Before the case starts, think about what you want to achieve in your client’s case. Identify where the gaps are.

Prepare your questions, keeping them precise and to the point. The court needs advocates to confine themselves to addressing the points identified as disputed in the preparation for trial documents (if appropriate).

6. Keep it simple

In examinations-in-chief in family proceedings, the parties have usually prepared statements. Don’t take them through everything they’ve already written down. Instead, explore new issues that have come up since they filed their statements.

Do not ask complicated questions as this can confuse witnesses – especially lay witnesses. Do not use double negatives.

And if an expert is against you, do not ask them the same question again and again in lots of different ways. You will not get a different answer – it will just reinforce the case against you.

7. Make notes as you go along

Although this is not always easy, it's worth doing.

Highlight anything:

  • significant that’s said
  • you might want to refer back to
  • you’d like to ask a question about
  • you'll use in your summing up

Summing up

8. Prepare

In a short trial, you may sketch out something before the case starts. In a long trial, there is sometimes time to do this as the case proceeds.

I find it useful to write headings for the main points I want to get across, then add to it as I go along – for example, jotting down points as they develop in the trial.

9. Be concise

In criminal trials, don’t repeat what the probation service has said. Stick to giving any background information on your client that is not included in the report. Underline the key points.

Finding imaginative solutions

10. Take an imaginative approach

Here’s an example:

I was acting for a mother in a care case, who had some learning disabilities but understood the court was going to order her children to go to her cousin. However, she was not able to say she consented to this.

It was tricky to handle. If she’d opposed the case vehemently she’d have been said to be against the placement, which would have affected how often she might have contact with the children. But she wanted to tell the court the recommendation was wrong.

I spoke to my colleagues who were representing the other parties. They agreed they would not ask her any questions.

She was able to have her say, which she ended with a curtsey, and the court went on to make the expected decision.

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