Pictured: A photo taken by Susan Wright of herself and Molly Biddle, after finishing her closing speech of a money laundering trial.
By Molly Biddle
Earlier this year in February, I had the opportunity to travel to the Chelmsford Crown Court in East England to witness the sentencing of the Stansted 15, a group of protestors who had been accused essentially of terrorism offences after preventing the deportation of immigrants. This was my first chance to see the English criminal justice system personally. I had been invited to the hearing as the guest of Susan Wright, a barrister from London who was advocating on behalf of one of the protestors.
After this opportunity, I reached out to Ms. Wright, hoping that she might take me on for a period over the summer. She very graciously agreed, and due to the generosity of Haverford’s CCPA and the Deborah Lafer-Scher International Internship, I was able to stay in the UK for six more weeks—having already spent the year studying abroad in the country.
This is the beginning of my fourth week working as a ‘mini-pupil’ with Ms. Wright, and I must say that it has been an incredible experience. This is largely due to the consideration demonstrated by Ms. Wright. Ms. Wright acted as a defense attorney in the United States for many years before relocating to Europe. She also notably represented one of the first people to be accused by the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone and acted as Head of Rule of Law for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia in addition to holding directorships of two non-profit organizations. Ms. Wright now works as an advocate for the Garden Court Chambers, a London-based barristers’ chambers specializing in human and civil rights law.
While Ms. Wright specializes in representing juvenile and adult defendants with complex mental health issues and defending protestors and those facing terrorism charges, she has been assigned a variety of cases over our past few weeks together. I have therefore had an opportunity to become familiar with many criminal statues from assault to money laundering and have traveled throughout many boroughs of London. I have also been asked by Ms. Wright to conduct some research on her behalf. Some of the research has to do with a project regarding the supports for mentally ill juvenile offenders. Additionally, I am looking into the government’s counterterrorism policies and how they have been applied to Islamist and Alt-right groups.
Even though the UK and the U.S. justice systems share their origins in the common law philosophy, I have noticed some remarkable differences in the two current systems, all of which make me grateful to be working with Ms. Wright, who intimately knows the procedures and mores in both countries. The most glaring of the differences is that the work of an attorney is separated into two different jobs in the UK. Solicitors do much of the preparation while barristers act as advocates. It means that a barrister’s contact with a client is highly limited. It is often that Ms. Wright first meets her clients five minutes before a hearing begins if she meets them before an appearance at all.
It has been incredibly interesting to see the amount of trust she has in her solicitors to provide all necessary information with enough time for her to prepare and to notify her clients of all their duties. I have also been amazed at how quickly she can prepare for a hearing or a case. While I have seen many American attorneys think and act on their feet, the lack of familiarity that barristers have with their clients and case details makes it impressive how quickly Ms. Wright and others are able to deftly advocate upon their client’s behalf.
It is also remarkable that the criminal process is seemingly less adversarial and less formal in general. Ms. Wright and I have discussed the fact that prosecutors and defense attorneys tend to be a bit more collegial than in the U.S. Ms. Wright has explained to me that unlike in the U.S. it would be incredibly difficult to spend a whole career as either just a prosecutor or just a defense attorney, so they tend to be a bit more empathetic toward their peers. Additionally, barristers must provide more of their case in advance of trial than in the U.S., making trials a bit more predictable for the court and adversarial attorneys. Also while barristers must all wear black gowns and horsehair wigs, the ways in which evidence is admitted and the questioning protocol in trial is not as formal.
The last thing that has struck me is the use of ‘docks’ to hold defendants. Docks are in essence enclosed spaces—I think resembling a fish tank—where defendants sit throughout their trial alongside a court guard. I find it a troubling practice as the separation of these defendants and the inclusion of a security guard seems to have a high potential of ‘othering’ and suggesting their guilt symbolically. It is a seemingly lasting practice within the UK and one that I think the U.S. is fortunate not to have.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked alongside Ms. Wright this summer. More important than the development of an understanding of how statues and court procedures compare between the UK and the U.S., I have learned what it means to be a criminal defense attorney for some of the most vulnerable people. Ms. Wright treats her clients with humanity and respect no matter how damning or gruesome the evidence against them. She is clearly dedicated to accessibility and equality under the law. While I am not certain that I will want to pursue criminal law in the future, it is an honor to have a seat next to her to watch her work with adroit grace and care.