In many industries, specialization is advised because being a Jack-of-all-trades makes you very likely to be a master-of-none. Being specialized in a certain area, would increase your chances in being excellent at it. It’s common sense. This is, however, not to be translated to mean that people are to stick to doing one thing all their lives or exploring other areas of their chosen career field. But niches are important – more so in the legal industry.
In the legal field, specialization is often advised for professional expedience. Clients usually feel at ease when they are working with lawyers that have defined their practice areas because there is an immediate (safe) assumption that they are experts in those areas. And this is with very good reason. Law is an incredibly broad subject. Laws and their application would vary with parties involved, subject areas, jurisdictions, jurisprudences, time and other contexts. This is more so true in the United States where laws differ across states
Another layer of complexity is difference in practice along criminal and civil lines. The implication is that criminal trials are very different from civil suits – and with good reason as would be analyzed later. You should read more on the different aspects of criminal practice, as that is not what this article primarily speaks to.
The complexity of legal practice across the world, regardless, there are two major legal principles that apply in criminal procedure in most jurisdictions and would therefore be useful to you if you’re accused of a crime.
Natural justice is a simple principle that requires fairness and reasonableness in court procedure with the aim of ensuring that the outcome of a trial is just and can be seen to be so by the public. This is because manifest justice is an important part of law. This goes back to the famous case of R v Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy (1923) where the court established the rule “justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done”.
There are two major elements of natural justice. Both originate from well-known Latin maxims – ‘Nemo judex in causa sua’ which means “No one should be made a judge in their own cause” and ‘Audi alteram partem’ which means to “hear both sides”.
No one should be a judge in their own cause
The effect of this principle is that no one should act as a judge in a case where they have a personal or vested interest. In other words, a judge must be disinterested in every case that comes before them to ensure that their decisions are not affected by their bias or knowledge of the case.
In order to ensure that justice is done, the objectivity of judges cannot be compromised. It would, therefore, be an aberration for a judge to judge a case where the victim is their relative, for example. There are several other scenarios where a judge’s interest can be gleaned and tilt the case in favor of or against the accused person. In any such case, judges ought to recuse themselves. Recusal could be either at the decision of the judge or upon the application of a party. In any case, after a judge steps aside, the case can then be transferred to another judge who has no interest.
Hear Both Sides
This principle requires courts to listen to the other side, against whom a charge is brought in order to provide them with adequate opportunity to respond to the evidence presented by the prosecuting party.
It is easy to side with the party that brings a matter before the court because their case would be presented in a manner that portrays them or the state as aggrieved. Criminal trials, however, are of a nature that could alter the lives of the accused or prosecuted party in ways that cannot be reversed. Making a hasty decision without giving people an opportunity to defend themselves is too grave to ignore. This is why, no matter how grievous the charge is against them, it is mandatory that they are given the opportunity to defend themselves.
Beyond consequence, this practice also supports the presumption of innocence. The innocence or guilt of a person is to be determined by courts after careful examination of the evidence presented by both parties.
The bottom-line of the audi alteram partem principle is that every person upon whom a charge is brought against is entitled to being fairly heard by the court. If you are an accused person, be sure to insist on this right at every stage of the trial that you are. You must, however, ensure that you do not implicitly waive the right through your actions or inactions.
Burden of Proof
Unlike civil suits where the burden of proof lies on any party making an assertion per time and is on a preponderance of evidence, the burden of proof in criminal trials rests solely on the prosecution and is beyond reasonable doubt. In simple terms, this means that in a criminal trial, the party who brings an allegation against another party is responsible for proving the guilt of the party under trial and the guilt must be proven beyond every reason doubt the court has about their innocence.
The goal of this is to avoid the false conviction of innocent people who are simply victims of circumstance but making sure that anytime a judge determines that a person is guilty, they do it with no reasonable doubt.
In spite of these mechanisms put in place by the law to ensure fair and just trials, it is estimated that 1 percent of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted. It is, therefore, important to ensure that you hire the best legal representation you can afford if you are ever accused of a crime.
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