Seeing Justice with JUSTICE

By Ee Vi Lim

First Year Law Student, JUSTICE Court Observer


It is a Friday – like everyone else, I pack up my stuff after lectures, but unlike everyone else, I make my journey to a Magistrates’ Court, ready to start my work as a JUSTICE court observer. On the bus ride there, I always think to myself – “so, what will I see today?”

For Year 1 students like me who have just started to dive into the ink of law on paper, I am grateful that my learnings have not been confined to a viewpoint that is remote from the reality. Because of JUSTICE, I am here now – in a court room – listening to the fate of people who are accused of harassment, violence, misbehaviors and so on being pronounced right before me.

Before coming to Law school, I have read about how the magistrates, who are lay people trained to hear cases in the lower courts, form the backbone of the English Legal System. The practical importance of magistrates is evident as they hear about 95% of all criminal cases, and their constitutional significance dates back to the Magna Carta 1215 which sets the foundational stone that no man shall be convicted except “by the lawful judgement of his equals”. Hence, it is no doubt that the lay representations on the Magistrate’s benches are vital to the doing of justice.

However, reading about something is one thing but experiencing it is another. Having travelled half the globe from my home to live in the English legal system that I have been reading on, I wanted to get an insider view on things for myself. Hence, when the human rights group, JUSTICE was recruiting for court observers, I immediately jumped on the opportunity knowing that this programme would bring me closer to the people behind the names, and the process before the decisions. As a court observer, I am tasked to gather data about the hearings, and so after I reach the courts, I will sit myself down in the public benches, pull out my sheets of observation log and start noting down the information – describing the people who are making the decision, listening to the reasoning that they rely on, observing whether or not the parties are being well represented and so on.

My area of research is centered on bail decisions as to whether or not the accused who is yet to be found guilty can be released into society as they wait for trial or whether they have to be locked up in custody. This makes the difference between being locked up in custody or being trusted to go back into society before being summoned to trials. As the famous saying goes, a man (or a woman) will be innocent until proven guilty; but at the same time, can we afford to bank against societal safety? This is the balance that the magistrates have to navigate through.

Although courts are theoretically adversarial in nature, one thing that really struck me is how collaborative the process can sometimes be. In some cases, the probation officers are consulted, the parties are represented, and the law is cited. Then, the courtroom seems to me like an effective platform where stakeholders can converse and work towards an equilibrium. One of the most memorable moments to me was when a judge kindly addressed the defendant with “sir” and explained him that it is in his best interest to follow the bail conditions, lest he will be put back into jail. The defendant then nodded understandingly. To many, this scene may not be anything special, but the respect proved to me, at least, that we can truly live through the principle that no one will be innocent until proven guilty.

It is these moments of seeing the abstract concept of justice being put into practice that makes the routine of travelling to court, waiting for cases to be summoned, and sitting in the public bench that tiny bit more special.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *