Chinese judges’ visit

A delegation from the Beijing High People’s Court visited London in the summer to find out more about our courts and to experience two mock trials. David Altaras and Christopher Donnellan QC report.

In late August/early September of this year, a delegation of twenty judges from the Beijing High People’s Court visited London. Their purpose was to discover how the English courts, both civil and criminal, deal with road traffic cases. Richard Wilson QC, having learned of their visit, organised fellow members of 36 Bedford Row to put on two mock trials, one a road traffic accident claim and the other a death by dangerous driving prosecution. There was an enthusiastic response, with members volunteering to write the scripts and to play the various roles of trial judge, counsel and witnesses. In all, twelve barristers gave up a day in court to act out the two trials. BPP University College generously gave us  use of a mock court room plus three other rooms, together with lunch and refreshments throughout the day.

Smith v (1) The London Red Bus Company Limited and (2) Ms Victoria Speedy

On the morning of Wednesday 14 September, the Chinese Judges heard the civil mock trial of Smith v (1) The London Red Bus Company Limited and (2) Ms Victoria Speedy before “Mr Justice Altaras”. Nick Blake appeared for the claimant, with Peter Dean for the defendant. Counsel and the judge were robed, much to the delight of our Chinese colleagues. The claim was brought by a pedestrian who, while crossing Oxford Street on a pelican crossing a few days before Christmas, was struck by a “bendy” bus. As always with these sorts of claims, the evidence was contradictory, with some witness alleging that the claimant crossed when the lights were green in his favour and other witnesses alleging that they were red. Counsel opened the case, witnesses were called and cross-examined, and counsel addressed the judge who then gave judgment. All the proceedings were translated into Mandarin Chinese by a quite superb translator. Unlike the authentic courts, photography was allowed. A great number of photographs were duly taken by the members of the delegation. The judge gave judgment for the claimant and awarded damages and costs.

Questions were taken after the morning session. It transpired that the proceedings in the English civil courts were instantly recognisable by the Chinese judges. However, two subjects really interested them.

  • The first was the issue of general damages. The JSB Guidelines for the assessment of general damages were explained in the general context of damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenities. A copy of the 10th edition was circulated and studied with great interest.
  • The other matter that concerned them was the issue of costs. It is no exaggeration to say that our Chinese colleagues appeared genuinely shocked at the level of costs awarded in civil claims. When we asked them whether costs were awarded in Chinese courts, the answer was illuminating. Apparently costs amount to the sterling equivalent of between one pound and fifty pence and are waived in the case of impecunious litigants.

 

R v Tyrone Head

In the afternoon, the criminal mock trial began of R -v- Tyrone Head, charged with causing death by dangerous driving as he drunkenly careered down Lambs Conduit Street in his Porsche. “Mr Justice Altaras” moved seamlessly from the Queen’s Bench Division in the morning, into the Crown Court for the afternoon. Sam Mainds appeared for the prosecution, and Christopher Donnellan QC for the defence. This presented another photo opportunity for the Chinese judges of counsel in wig and gown.

Twelve Chinese judges were empanelled to form the jury, and the remainder observed from the public gallery. The trial was conducted procedurally correctly from start to finish, with occasional humour and exaggeration: Felicity Gerry rather emotionally describing the fatal moments of her friend’s life, Philippa Daniels faithfully trying to present the accident reconstruction evidence as a slightly out-of-her-depth investigating officer. The interpreter was marvellously up to the challenge.

The process of a trial was followed, and explained, from a challenge for cause and the taking of the jury oath, through robust challenge to the prosecution case. The defendant was represented at public expense by genuine Queen’s Counsel - long may that opportunity be open to all. James Collins as the defendant was excellent; not only had he had a few beers before driving his Porsche, but a good slug of whisky from the bottle in his car to steady his nerves after the accident.

Closing speeches and Summing Up gave us the opportunity to impress upon the jury the importance of the burden and standard of proof, and a decision to be made on evidence. The jury retired. The remainder of the judges joined counsel for a cup of tea, and a straw poll was taken. They all said that they would find the defendant guilty. Notified that there was a verdict, the Court reassembled. The unanimous verdict was: “Not Guilty.” The jury had clearly taken their duty seriously, and applied the directions of law to the facts.

Collectively they had reached the opposite verdict to their observing colleagues. This was curious. Was it because the “jury” followed the directions on law and evidence more closely than their observing colleagues? What was the effect of our not permitting the “jury” to discuss the case with their observing colleagues before the verdict? Did the different decisions by Chinese judges acting as jury and those simply observing underscore the importance of injunctions that jurors should not discuss the case with those outside their number?

We discussed with the Chinese judges who made up the jury the sentence that would have followed if there had been a conviction. Each juror was asked, in turn, what sentence they would have passed in Beijing. The range was remarkably close to the Definitive Guidance offered by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, with a range of 4 to 7 years.

By actual participation in mock trial settings, the day helped provide the Beijing judges with a better understanding of procedure and decision-making processes in English road traffic civil and criminal cases than would have been the case had the learning exercise been delivered in traditional lecture format.

In training exercises for foreign judiciary or lawyers operating outside common law systems, mock trials seem an attractive way for the English Bar to acquaint those being trained with the English legal system.

David Altaras and Christopher Donnella QC, 36, Bedford Row

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