Over the next eight weeks, lawyer Mel Woodcock is working with a group of senior students who hope to gain some insights into the legal system, before conducting their very first trial.

3 little pigs
Source: http://www.gwu.edu

SESSION 1: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

In this session we looked at "The True story of the Three Little Pigs" written by Jon Scieszka which basically asserts that the wolf was framed! All he was trying to do was to borrow a cup of sugar to make a cake for his granny. Unfortunately he had a bad cold and some big sneezes at the wrong time managed to blow down the first two little pigs poorly constructed houses. The collapse of their homes killed the pigs instantly and not wanting to waste food, the wolf thought he was doing the right thing by eating them. By the time the Police arrived, the wolf was at the third little pigs house and he was arrested and taken to jail, where he writes his recount. This story raises some interesting questions:

How do we know the truth about an event that has happened? How do we decide which version of the three little pigs story is true?

Does there need to be intent to commit a crime? If the death of the pigs was accidental, then is wolf still guilty?

See here for the "True Story of the Three Little Pigs" and some philosophical questions which arise from it.

SESSION 2: The Licorice Allsort Legal System lic1.jpg

The New Zealand Legal System - not the most riveting topic for discussion! But, its a bit like laying the foundations of a new house, understanding the legal system in a wider context will help us as we continue to build our knowledge of the law. So, to sweeten the topic a little, we worked with giant licorice allsorts. The first step was to separate the 7 layers. Aimee undertook this task like a scientific dissection! Each layer represents a part of the legal system, and together they form the whole. The hardest part for these students was not layering the licorice allsort up again, but resisting the temptation to eat it in the meantime!

See here for the summary of our discussion.

One exercise that we did during this session was to look at different examples of New Zealand legislation. Each student chose a piece of paper out of the hat which had the name of an Act and its purpose. Their task was to identify any key words that gave clues about what that piece of legislation was about. I was impressed by the students ability to wade through some very flowery legal language to get to the main point. Alex and Caitlin were particularly quick to articulate their understanding. We looked at legislation like the Biosecurity Act, Fair Trading Act, Animal Welfare Act etc and even learned that the Death Penalty was only abolished in New Zealand in 1989.

SESSION 3: Guilty Pleas

So, today our young lawyers were faced with their first REAL case. Mr Green (not his real name) was charged with assault after giving a man a kick in the backside at a Christmas function at the Tai Tapu golf course in Christchurch. Mr Green had become frustrated by the victim's annoying behaviour on the golf course, disturbing fixtures, making jokes and kicking the tee markers away. Regretfully Mr Green's actions caused the victim to collapse and he required emergency surgery for his injuries. The task for our young lawyers was to represent Mr Green on his guilty plea in the District Court.
To do this, we had to work through the process of how to present a plea in mitigation. Our first step was to look at sentencing. What types of sentences can be given by a Judge? We learned about diversion, which is a bit like a "get out of jail free" card for minor offenses. We also learned that there are a wide range of community-based sentences such as community service, community programmes and periodic detention. Just imagine having to turn up for one day a week at a periodic detention centre and work for 10 hours without getting paid? Wait a minute, says Hugh... they don't get paid?!!

Next step, what is a plea in mitigation? It's basically information that will help the Court to understand the defendant's situation and encourage the Court to give them a less serious penalty. So, what can we say about Mr Green? We talked about the fact that he had co-operated with the Police and entered an early guilty plea. He was remorseful and was willing to pay reparation to the victim. He had a full-time job and no previous convictions. He did not mean to cause serious harm to the victim. All these factors we would include in our plea of mitigation. This week, Mel presented a plea of mitigation for Mr Green using the language of the Courtroom and asked the Judge to consider a discharge without conviction (like the real case). The group were all quite persuaded by Mr Green's plea of mitigation but like often happens in the real world, the case didn't go our way. The Judge said Mr Green had to accept the consequences of the injury being serious so his application for a discharge without conviction was dismissed and he was convicted and told to pay the victim $1000 reparation. Next week our young lawyers will each be given a real District Court case and asked to present their own plea in mitigation. We will compare their sentencing submissions with what the real Judge in each case decided!

Here is Mr Green's summary of facts and plea in mitigation plus some general information on sentencing and of mitigation.

SESSIONS 4 and 5: Writing and Presenting Pleas in Mitigation

Today our young lawyers were all given their own real District Court case to work on. Armed with a Police Summary of facts and some background information about the defendant, they each had to write a plea of mitigation for their client. The plea had to include a submission to the Court about what type of sentence would be appropriate. With brains on fire, the group quickly set to work with loads of questions, discussion, reading aloud, writing furiously, re-reading, proofing and finally completion! Jacob and Amy W. were keen to present their pleas first so we had just enough time in the first session to hear these. Both delivered their pleas with confidence and flair.

Session 5 and we were back to hear more pleas. With Room 1A set up with a prosecution table and a defence table, the group took turns being the Police (to read out the summary of facts) and being defence counsel. At the conclusion of each plea of mitigation, we all discussed the facts and the suggested sentence and then listened to the comments and decision that the real Judge made in each case. Top marks to Caitlyn whose submission on sentence was exactly the same as what the Judge handed down! This was a great experience at being able to elicit the necessary information to tell the Court as well as thinking about sentencing options and addressing the Court in the appropriate way. Great work everyone.

SESSION 6: Not guilty pleas

What happens if a person is charged with a crime and wants to plead not guilty? Following Oliver's case (from the Civics Education part of the Ministry of Justice website) we looked at the process from beginning to end. Here is a very brief overview:

oliver 1.jpg

Oliver runs a red light and crashes into a van. Kim will be seriously injured, and Lisa will be killed, along with the driver of another car. Oliver will break his leg. The police and ambulance arrive quickly and Oliver is taken to hospital, accompanied by a Police Officer.

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Oliver is discharged from hospital the next day. The Officer in Charge (OIC) of the case visits Oliver at home and arrests him for manslaughter and reckless driving causing injury. Oliver is regarded as innocent until proven guilty. The OIC informs Oliver of his rights and responsibilities under the Bill of Rights.

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Oliver is taken to the police station and is interviewed by the police. He is formally charged with two charges of manslaughter and one charge of reckless driving causing injury. He is fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a police cell by himself to wait for his court appearance the next day.

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Oliver pleads not guilty. He will face a jury in the High Court. Oliver is granted bail under strict conditions, including not being allowed to drive.

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Two days later, Oliver is caught driving. The police arrest him for breaching his bail. Oliver is remanded in custody in prison until his next court appearance. For Oliver's case to go to the High Court, the Judge has to find out what witnesses say happened and whether there is "a case to answer". This happens at a depositions hearing. The prosecution lawyer presents the depositions for the Judge to evaluate. Oliver is committed to trial.

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Oliver's lawyer prepares his defence in consultation with Oliver and any defence witnesses to be called. The Crown counsel arranges for witnesses to give evidence at the trial. This was a good opportunity to talk about the kind of evidence used in criminal trials (e.g. witness accounts, exhibits, forensic evidence etc). We also talked about the kind of evidence that can't be used in criminal trials (e.g. heresay or second hand evidence, evidence obtained by improper means like an illegal search or evidence arising out of confidential relationships). Then we looked at some of the different kinds of defences that can be used in criminal trials such as necessity, duress, self-defence, mistake, alibi, entrapment etc.
The trial will take five days. Once all the evidence is presented, the Judge sums up and the jury decides if Oliver is guilty or innocent. Oliver is found guilty.
Three weeks later, Oliver is sentenced to prison for three years. In prison, Oliver is given a sentence plan that focuses on giving him opportunities to break the cycle of re-offending.
Oliver becomes eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence. Certain conditions are set down as part of his parole. If he breaches these, he can be sent back to prison. Oliver leaves prison and returns to the community. Oliver's future is up to him now.