Few people would claim the English legal system is particularly straightforward. A judge sitting in court effectively represents 1,000 years of legal evolution. Even the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary of England and Wales acknowledges our courts system is complicated and occasionally confusing, having simply developed as required for so long rather than having been designed for purpose at a single moment in time. Different types of case are addressed in different types of court and there are, unsurprisingly, different types of judge.
Most people have seen a courtroom drama on television and therefore picture a jury trial when imagining a judge at work. So let’s take a look at a so-called ‘circuit judge’ hearing a criminal case in the Crown Court, which is where serious criminal matters are ‘committed’ (or sent).
The judge plays a key role in the criminal justice system, presiding over the trial process to ensure fairness and that the jury has arrived at a decision in the correct manner. Before the trial, the judge will read the relevant papers to familiarise himself or herself with the details of the case. Such paperwork will include the indictment setting out the charges on which the defendant is to be tried, exhibits (evidence) and witness statements.
In court, the judge keeps the jury informed and comfortable with proceedings, ensures the witnesses and defendants give the best account of the facts they can and controls the advocates. (‘Advocates’, such as barristers, plead a case on someone else’s behalf. Barristers in England and Wales are often hired by solicitors to represent cases in court, putting arguments to the judge and jury, as well as questioning witnesses, trying to influence the outcome of the case. In Scotland, the equivalent role to a barrister is called an ‘advocate’.)
When all the evidence has been heard, the judge will sum up, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s argument. The jury then retires to the deliberation room to consider the verdict.
Another responsibility of the circuit judge is sentencing. If the offence is sufficiently serious, the judge has the power to imprison the person (or people) convicted of the crime. Punishment is naturally a consideration for any judge but, when sentencing, judges will also reflect on how to reduce the likelihood of the criminal reoffending.
When hearing criminal cases, circuit judges wear a red tippet (sash) over the left shoulder.
Circuit judges are appointed to one of seven regions of England and Wales. There are more than 600 circuit judges in England and Wales, most of whom live near to their courts.
All court work involves interacting with the public and a judge’s decisions can dramatically affect people’s lives. Being a judge is undoubtedly a demanding job but, as with the work of a solicitor, often very rewarding.