Introduction to field site
Court procedures can be informative in terms of providing information on the law. As such, part of law study curriculum should incorporate an observation of the proceedings in a court of law. In line with this, I carried out an observatory study by visiting Oregon District court of law. The main objective of the visit was to observe and learn about various court procedures and rules as well as to pick out essential aspects of law practice based on the cases listened to during the court procedures. The Oregon District Court was selected as the best place for conducting this study due to its accessibility. The court also houses the county police hence offers an all round judicial system. The court is a public site and anyone is allowed entry free of charge. This was necessary for the observation to be conducted without any fear or disturbances.
The court was visited on two different days in a span of one week. One visit went for three hours while the other went on for two hours giving a total of five hours of observations. During the visits, the observations entailed looking into the procedures such as introduction of judges and counsels for the defense and the plaintiffs; court conduct from observers, witnesses, case parties and their counsels and the trial and case conclusion procedures. These are the key happenings in a court that form the core of court operations. Based on the findings of the observation processes, the paper sections henceforth describe the key observations during the court visits. In particular, three different cases will be described. Two of the cases were handled on the first day while the third case was determined on the second day of observation. Each of these cases is minor cases.
The first day of visiting the court brought out a lot of important lessons, particularly on the court procedures. The visit was carried out from 9 a.m. since this is the time that court proceedings are started in the District court. Prior to the judge’s entry, the court room was in a buzz of activity, with people moving up and down. It was difficult to know who had cases to be determined or mentioned on that day. Those in the court room were speaking freely with each other concerning the outlook of the court room among other factors. From their appearances, one could determine those who were together and those who were just seeing each other for the first time. As the judge came in, every one rose as form of respect and later settled down for the court procedures to begin. Initially, movements could be seen across the court room, with people seemingly picking things from others and some delivering items or communicating with others both verbally and through writing. The court was then called to order so that the proceedings could commence.
The first case to be mentioned involved a defendant who was being tried for his liability in a tort offence. In the pre-trial durations, there were various activities that were observed. First, the counsels were seen to consult about some issues. Since they did not speak in loud voices, it was difficult to perceive what they were consulting about. This was then followed by an exchange of various documents across the floor. The counsels could be seen submitting some documents to the court clerks, while others were exchanged between the counsels. In this case, not many documents were exchanged. The exchange and issuance of documentations was followed by the commencement of the court proceedings under the facilitation of the court prosecutor. There were no directions to prevent movement within the court hence some of the people in the audience could move freely in and out as well as across the court room. For the case parties, it was clearly allowed for the counsels to move close to witness stands and to be able to interrogate witnesses from their positions. The counsels and any other person could also stand while asking questions within the court proceedings.
The prosecutor mentioned the details of the case. In the case, the defendant had been accused of having killed his neighbor’s chickens in the neighbor’s compound after his dog was set free and fled to the neighbor’s compound. Even though the defendant was not personally responsible for killing the chicken, it was argued that the actions of the dog were foreseeable and that the owner should be held liable for the consequences. Through the hearings, the defendant argued that it was the responsibility of the plaintiff to ensure his fence was well mended to avoid any intrusions. From the descriptions that the plaintiff and the defendant gave, the scene of the events was probably a rural setting. Both parties in the case gave claims and counter claims through their counsels. A veterinary doctor’s report was mentioned to be part of the evidence by the plaintiff as proof that his chickens actually died as a result of the dog bites. On the other hand, the defendant gave, through his attorney, pictures of the point through which the dog had entered the plaintiff’s compound to indicate that the plaintiff could have foreseen the possibility of any animals entering the compound.
Pictures of the dog were also described by the plaintiff’s attorney as part of the evidence that it belonged to the accused. In this case, a total of two witnesses were called to give their perceptions on the case. The first witness was the plaintiff’s house keeper who had found the dog within the compound. The second was the doctor who confirmed that the deaths of other chickens were as a result of the dog bites. Various questions emanated from the defendant and the counsels of both sides all in a bid to establish the certainty of the events as described during the proceedings. In the entire period, the counsels were free to move across the court room, to speak directly to the judge and to approach witness stands without asking for permission to do so. During this trial, it was also observed that the judge, the clerks as well as the counsels did not refer to the plaintiff and the defendant by their positions in the case but rather by using their full names. When objections to certain proceedings were given, the counsels did not ask any questions either for or against the objections. They were merely upheld or over ruled. After the witnesses had spoken and the evidences reviewed, the trial for this case was concluded and the court went on a fifteen minutes recess. As the judge went out of the court room, the court stood again until he was out before excessive movements resumed in the court room.
During the recess, the movements within the court did not reduce in any way. Apart from the counsels who went out of the court, other people within the court house also moved around depending on their level of activity. Some people left the court room while others came in. At the same time, the defendant and the plaintiff both left the court room after speaking to the clerk for more directions as directed by the judge. When they had gone out, the court clerks also went out with various documents. From the end of the first case, around 10 minutes had elapsed. Two minutes later, the court clerks came back to court with the objective of beginning preparations for the next case as observed from their actions. The court clerks arranged some documents on their desks awaiting further action after the judge had returned from recess. After exactly 15 minutes from the beginning of court recess, the judge returned and the court was ordered to rise for that occasion. The judge took his place and the court was called to order for the next case to begin. The next case, as called forth by the prosecutor was a case of traffic offence.
After mentioning the case, the state counsel was seen to present some documents to the court clerk. These were to be used at the evidence for the case. The defendant for the second case was a businessman who had been ticketed that morning for over speeding. In this case, there were no counsels for the defendant or for the state as the plaintiff. The defendant had reportedly been doing 120km per hour on a highway, yet the maximum allowable speed is 110km per hour. As a result, the arresting officer came in with the traffic records and car monitoring records to show the actions of the car in question at the time of incidence. The proceedings took a relatively short time in comparison to the previous case which involved a tort violation. The defendant gave his reasons for his actions and requested the court to be lenient in passing judgment on the case due to his condition during the time of the incidence. The defendant mentioned stress as one of the factors that led to over speeding and also cited the fact that he had been called and informed that his wife had been taken critically injured following an accident and that she was in intensive care at the time of the incidence as well as during the court proceedings. The case was concluded within 30 minutes and other cases mentioned afterwards. On the conclusion of this case, I personally left and prepared to go back on a later date. I could not ask any questions as I wanted to be a non-participant observer in the court proceedings. My main objective was to determine how court proceedings were conducted in Oregon District court and I achieved this through passive observation.
The second visit was carried out around 10.30 a.m. on a Tuesday. At this time, the first case of the day had just been concluded based on the observations made in the court room. The court was in recess and there was a flurry of motion across the entire court room. Some people were leaving while others, just like me, were coming in. The court clerks were already seated in their places and could be seen busy, probably in preparation for the coming case. In less than ten minutes, the judge came into the court, amid rising of the court members. As he took his place at the helm of the court, everyone in the court room sat down except the prosecutor. The judge called the court to order and mentioned some of the expectations during proceedings including need for clarity and the responsibility of witnesses to give accurate information. In this case, the judge was different from that from the previous week. The names cannot however be mentioned herein due to the need to protect their privacy to keep certain information confidential. The judge called the court to order and then asked for the trial to begin.
The case as described by the prosecutor was filed by a tenant against his landlord. The tenant had reported that his landlord was forcefully evicting him without consideration of the welfare of the tenant. The counsels of the two sides were seen consulting with each other and exchanging some files. This was then followed by the movement of each of the counsels separately to give some documents to the court clerks. During the court proceedings, the defendant and the plaintiff counsels did not call forward any witnesses. The case was built through reference to tenancy laws and the requirements for tenancy termination under the federal laws. In their arguments, the landlord’s counsel presented documents that gave sufficient notice to the tenant on his intention to renovate the premises. On the other hand, the plaintiff presented a counter argument that the reported documents had not been issued to him. The case was concluded against the landlord. In issuing his judgment, the judge referred to other similar cases that had been previously determined.
Perception of the field site
From the observations that were made in the court room, various perceptions were created. One of them is the notion that court proceedings have particular rules, with which those who are familiar with the court rules are conversant. For instance, across the three cases that were observed during different court sessions, it is clear that the court has a rule that the defendants and the plaintiffs should not be referred to either by their first names or by their positions in reference to the case. The counsels as well as other parties to the cases always referred to those involved in cases by their full names, inclusive of titles. From my point of view, this helps to avoid a perception of familiarity within the court settings. It can be said to help in portraying the counsels merely players in the law with no personal relationships with the case parties at any time.
Apart from this, the cases as observed during the trials gave different perceptions depending on how they proceeded. In the first case of tort liability, the evidences provided by the parties to events in question indicated portrayed a perception of lack of liability to the tort. While the owner of the dog could not have foreseen that his dog could trespass into another person’s property when let loose since the property was fenced and there was no other personal property around, the chicken owner could foresee that leaving his fence un-mended could allow intruders to get into the compound and potentially cause harm. It is on this basis that the judgment was made against the plaintiff. During the trial, the perception created by the plaintiff was that the defendant was solely responsible for letting his dog loose. On the other hand, he downplayed his role in the event. Personally, based on the questions asked by the plaintiff’s attorney and the lack of witnesses on the defendant’s side, I imagined that the defendant was bound to lose the case. It can thus be argued that my perceptions were founded on the lack of consideration for the conditions of tort liability.
In the second case, the arguments of both sides of the case clearly created a perception of inevitable charge. Apart from this, I was made to believe that the fast condescendence by the defendant was due to his state of urgency as he still needed to visit his wife in hospital. Based on his explanation of his reason for over speeding, I imagined the judge would be lenient on him and maybe let him go with a warning. However, my perceptions were misled as the judge based his argument on the fact that over speeding places the life of the driver at risk and that the death of the driver could imply lack of care for the hospitalized. In the third case, I initially had the perception that the judgment would be in favor of the landlord. The evidence submitted by the landlord’s attorney painted a picture of a lying tenant. However, when prompted to indicate the means through which the initial notice indicating the reason for terminating tenancy was issued, the landlord failed to establish the truth in this through his attorney. This led to change of perception since I now thought of how possible it would have been for the landlord to forge a letter since he was the writer.
Observing court proceedings has changed my perception of law to a large extent. As a law student, the first aspect that has been changed in me is my perception of witness accounts. In two of the cases witnessed, I realized that what initially seemed to be true based on the presentations made by the case parties, turned out to be the false argument. This has taught me to understand that interpretation of cases in law should not be based on the accounts of single witnesses but should entail deep probing to confirm accuracy of records. Blindly following the arguments presented by the witnesses can result in wrong judgment. For instance, in a case where the defendant seemingly lacked defense points, it was found out that the plaintiff was the one on the wrong. This brings out the second lesson learnt about the law.
From the summary of the first case, some aspects of law require consideration of several conditions. It is crucial for all conditions in a case to be considered before concluding the case. This is drawn from the application of tort law to the first case. Only considering the conditions for tort liability from the perspective of the defendant could have shown that he was indeed guilty. On the other hand, the case was only decided after consideration of the tort conditions from the perspective of plaintiff. Each of these parties had a responsibility to act on the issue before harm was caused yet one of the outcomes was unforeseeable.
The findings from this study make law practice an intensive exercise which can only be conducted efficiently through diligent observations in court proceedings.