By Zoe Navarro, Director of Navarro Lawyers and member of the QLS Future Leaders Committee
For most lawyers their first court appearance will be a mention in the Magistrates Court. Some will even start appearing, with the leave of the court, before they are admitted as a Solicitor.
I have set out a list of my top three tips for appearing in the Magistrates Court. These tips are relevant to all appearances, from an uncontested application for an adjournment, to a summary hearing. They are based on my own personal experience and observations from appearing in the Magistrates Court for more than 10 years as a criminal defence lawyer. These tips are also applicable to appearances in the District and Supreme Court at mentions and 222 appeals.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
- Even if you are appearing on an uncontested adjournment application, make sure you know the file you are appearing on. In particular be aware of:
- The charges before the court
- How many times they have been before the court (is it the first or tenth mention?)
- Whether your client’s appearance is excused or not
- Your client’s bail status
- The status of the matter and the reason for the adjournment (ie - if a submission was sent to prosecution, what date was it sent? If you are waiting on a Brief for prosecution, when was that requested? etc).
- For sentences, bail applications and hearings, preparation is the key to success. You need to ensure you have properly read and considered all documents and that nothing will take you or your client by surprise in court.
- You should also consider whether there is any material you should be preparing to assist the court. In some cases, written submissions can be helpful to the court. Character references and case authority that support your submission on penalty should also be considered by you prior to the appearance.
- Write your submissions out in full. It can be distracting to Magistrate and other parties involved to have you flipping between papers, or searching through your iPad/tablet to find a document you need to read from. It is also detrimental to the flow of your submissions and the strength of your argument. It will assist you and the court to have properly prepared your oral submissions in one document that you can refer to.
2. Be armed with the relevant legislation and case law
- Do not assume that everyone has the same knowledge as you. If you are referring to a sentencing principle, have the relevant section and case law to refer to if required. In bail applications, if you rely upon the principle that “no grant of bail is risk-free”, have the relevant case law on hand to speak to if required.
- If you are appearing on a summary hearing, you should be prepared for all potential possibilities and have the relevant case law for any issue that might arise, such as a hostile witness application by the prosecution or a no case submission that you might need to make at the close of the prosecution case.
- Ensure you are able to provide a clear and succinct analysis of any case law you are relying upon. You should be able to identify the main issues from the case and highlight the distinguishing features, then go to the relevant statement of principle you rely upon. If you simply provide a copy of a decision, without that helpful analysis and link it back to the circumstances of your client, it will not have the same impact.
3. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not guess it!
- If you guess an answer and are wrong, you could be found to have misled the court, and could have jeopardised your client’s position. This is extremely damaging to your reputation as an advocate, which you should do everything in your power to protect. It goes without saying that lying to the court is the most serious sin an advocate can commit.
- If you do not know the answer to a question, simply say that you do not know. You can ask to stand the matter down or adjourn it to another day to take instructions or seek advice on that topic. If you are in the middle of a bail application, sentence or hearing, you can ask to stand the matter down briefly for that purpose.
The best way to improve as an advocate is to observe others in the profession, de-brief with your colleagues after an appearance, ask those you trust for feedback, read the latest published decisions from the Court of Appeal through to the Magistrates Court, and remember that we are all always learning.