Reasonable Doubt: What's it like in trial?

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      Just an hour before, the judge had announced the end to our civil trial. We exchanged bows and watched the judge walk out of the courtroom. And now I sit at a hotel bar across the street with the other lawyers involved in the trial. This post-trial drink with your adversary is almost a ritual. If you’re a trial lawyer, you might know the bar I’m talking about.  

      It might seem odd that lawyers who just spent a trial arguing against one another are now sharing smiles and laughs. But it comes from a place of mutual respect, no matter the outcome. It comes from a shared understanding that they gave it their all.

      Sure, this courtesy amongst lawyers is not always there. Egos, competitiveness, and high levels of work stress can get in the way. But for the most part, there is a real camaraderie among trial lawyers. It helps that many believe they can be good advocates if they are courteous, not cutthroat, with one another.  

      Trial has other aspects that might be perplexing for outsiders. The most glaring part is how a courtroom looks and feels. I often have witnesses mentally prepare for this. A trial is very formal. The judge, registry clerk, and lawyers are all dressed the same: white shirt, black waistcoat, and white tabs; all under black robes. The idea of going to court can seem nerve-racking. To calm witnesses’ nerves, I have jokingly suggested that they visualize a room of serious people dressed like wizards. 

      In all seriousness, though, the courtroom is a solemn place. In addition to how people dress, there is a formal way of speaking. Lawyers refer to one another as "my friend". The judge is addressed as "my lord" or "my lady".

      The courtroom can seem imposing, with red carpeting and wooden panelling. The room can be deep and its ceiling can be high. Given how much space is empty, it can seem eerily quiet. Sure, there may be impassioned argument by lawyers and dramatic testimony by witnesses. But if you dropped in to watch, you’d realize it’s hardly louder than a conversation at the dinner table. And on that note: yes, trials are generally open to the public. You can enter a courtroom just to watch.

      Here are a few other things you might not expect about trial: the time. A trial can span days or weeks. Complex trials can even take months. So, day in and day out, evidence is presented and arguments are made until both sides finish.

      People are often surprised at the times that court is in session. Generally, court hours are from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. with a short morning break, a 90-minute lunch break, and a short afternoon break. In all, court is in session for about four hours each day. To outsiders, this may seem slack. But trial lawyers would beg to differ. Before and after court is in session, lawyers are busy. They are working on something coming up or dealing with something that just happened. Even during the mid-day breaks, there is a flurry of activity. Rather than what the four-hour schedule suggests, trial lawyers could be working 10- or 12-plus-hour days.

      In my last piece about preparing for trial, I noted just how much effort is needed to ensure a smooth trial. But no matter the preparation, there are always curveballs. Maybe a doctor who is an expert witness is called away to perform an emergency surgery. Or maybe your judge is assigned an urgent hearing in the middle of your trial. Dealing with these surprises is just part of the challenge of running a trial.

      There’s a tremendous amount of effort put into preparing and then running a trial. So how does it all end? When it comes to civil trials with judges (let’s save jury trials for another day), the judgment is rarely given right away. Instead, the judgment is typically given in writing. That’s because the court needs time to consider all of the evidence and arguments. Similarly, it needs time to write out its reasons. The more complicated the trial is, the more time may be needed. Given the shortage of judges and their high caseload, it’s not unusual for the court to take six months or more to provide its written reasons.

      The reasons of a trial judge are often published. The decision is judge-made law. It can direct or even determine the rights of someone in the future. So from a trial to the resulting judgment, and then to its impact on future cases, the legal system runs in a cycle through time.

      A word of caution: the information provided refers to the BC Supreme Court. You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or consult a lawyer.

      Kevin Yee is a trial lawyer at Personal Legal Services. He acts for people who have been injured or wronged. If you have topics that you’d like Reasonable Doubt to cover or if you have a general question for a lawyer, you’re welcome to send him an e-mail.