According to movies, this is how a trial ends: a judge or jury announces the judgment and the crowded courtroom erupts in response. Lawyers of opposing sides shake hands. Maybe one lawyer throws in a biting one-liner. Everyone empties out of the courtroom and out onto the courthouse steps. A throng of reporters shout questions and snap photographs. Lawyers and their clients comment for the news. Voices fade and music starts. Camera pulls up and pans away. Roll credits.
How accurate is this? In my experiences, it’s really not. This scene is about as accurate as Braveheart or 300 were accurate as historical pieces. And speaking of my experiences: I’m talking about civil trials (not criminal) in B.C. (not other provinces or the U.S.).
First, having a crowded courtroom is pretty rare. You’d be hard-pressed to find a civil trial with a crowded gallery. Of course, there might be cases that get publicity because of a high-profile person involved. But for the most part, trials end in a pretty empty room. Similarly, lawyers rarely walk out of the courthouse and get mobbed by reporters.
Second, trials don’t typically end with a climactic moment of an announced judgment. Instead, judgment is often reserved. This is to allow the judge to consider all the evidence and write his or her reasons for judgment. The written reasons can be dozens of pages long. 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. By that point, the lawyers have moved on to work on other files for other clients.
The exception to this is for jury trials. Jury trials do, in fact, end with a climactic announcement. But this takes place after a period of deliberation by the jurors. That in itself can take days.
The biggest inaccuracy is where movies choose to end. As the courtroom empties and the camera fades to the credits, they imply that the legal case is over. Of course, that’s not true most of the time because of reserved judgments. But even after the judgment is rendered and written reasons are released, the case does not end then and there. What follows is more legal work that is a lot less exciting than what happens during trial.
What work could there be after a trial? Actually, there can be a lot of things to iron out. One party might decide to appeal. That starts an entirely different legal process. It means arguing in a higher court that the trial judgment was wrong.
Even if there is no appeal, lawyers still need to sort out other issues after trial. Collecting on an order is a major issue. When a judgment is given, you have a court order. With a civil trial, this is generally an order that one party must pay damages to the other party. But a court order and a cheque are two different things. It’s up to the parties to ensure that the order is followed and that the money is paid. If a party refuses to obey the order to pay damages, there are options such as having the court bailiff seize their assets.
There’s one more thing about how trials end that never make it onto the screen. That relates to something called costs. After a trial, lawyers have to figure out what costs should be awarded. An award of costs is separate from damages. It is generally awarded to the winning party and is meant to help that party pay their legal fees. I wrote about this in more detail in a previous article but the gist of it is that there are rules on how costs are calculated in B.C. It’s not as simple as the losing party reimbursing the winning party for their legal bills. An award for costs depends on the amount of legal work done. Also, it can be affected by how a party tried to negotiate an out-of-court settlement to avoid trial. Costs may be a dry conversation topic, but they are crucial for lawyers to consider when weighing the risks of going to trial for their clients.
So there you have it. This is what happens after all the drama and excitement of a trial. Dealing with the little details, logistics, and paperwork is an aspect of legal work that is important and necessary—it’s just not glamorous enough to get any screen time.
A word of caution: 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.