The Reality of Criminal Practice: Trainee Reflections
Dochas: the Irish noun for 'hope'.
My introduction to the criminal law was through the usual medium as you might expect: legal dramas on television or thriller novels set in America during my teenage years. A worthy start for anyone aspiring to be a lawyer, certainly.
When you think of prison life, you may even recall seminal films such as 'The Shawshank Redemption',, 'The Great Escape' and 'Escape from Alcatraz', with atonement, forgiveness and the harsh reality of institutionalised confinement at the centre of their themes.
Even contemporary series on Netflix demonstrate society's often intense preoccupation with the criminal law in such true-life documentaries, 'Making a Murderer' and bleakly comic prison-drama like 'Orange is the New Black'.
My interest in the law deepened during secondary school, with prospectus reading during Career Guidance and researching 'what does a solicitor do'?
I even had the amazing opportunity to spend a week in a solicitor's office the Summer before I got to sit the crucial Leaving Certificate exams.
In between reading files and talking to the administrative staff about the day-to-day running of the office, there was the chance to attend the Circuit Court in Washington Street, Cork for a civil litigation case.
It was my first time stepping into a courthouse and it was quite awe-inspiring for a young student in her smart blazer and black handbag to see clerks of the court pacing between courtrooms and barristers conversing with clients.
Even as I was sitting in the courtroom, watching the arguments unfold and the witnesses questioned, there was always the thought in my mind about what it would be like to do exactly that, someday. To be the person with the file, the notes, the relevant information at hand, to have done all the research and preparation for a day in court.
Once the case was heard and the judge had risen, the solicitor in charge told me that I was free to spend the rest of the afternoon in the courthouse, and directed me to one of the other courtrooms where a criminal matter was being heard.
After being instructed to be quiet and to turn my mobile phone off, I crept as quietly as I could into one of the upper benches into the public gallery, where one of the counsel was cross examining a garda officer.
Compared to the civil litigation hearing, which was in itself a serious matter, the atmosphere in the criminal proceedings was entirely different. There was almost something heavy in the air, the atmosphere one of quiet tension, and the barrister currently on his feet struck an imposing figure, posing his questions in a very self assured manner.
Even from the viewing gallery, a person sitting there could immediately sense the gravity of the situation, even without knowing that it was a criminal matter.
The details of the actual case escape me, with regard to the actual crime committed, but all I can recall is that the man who was the accused, dressed in a pressed suit and tie, was physically taken down into the well below the court, and he gave a look towards his family, who happened to be sitting on the opposite end of the bench to me, who were all openly crying, but he gave them a wave and went with the guards quietly.
My first instinct was to stand quite quickly and leave the courtroom, wanting nothing more than some fresh air and to return to the relative routine safety of reading files about road traffic accidents and searching the Courts website rather than be a witness to a family's genuine heartbreak.
So that was my first exposure to the criminal law and while it was not the most pleasant experience, the fact remains that the criminal justice system exists for a reason: to act as a deterrent to those who would break the law and act in the best interests of the public in upholding the law and order.
One of the recent informative legal seminars in Blackhall as part of the PPC1 course was delivered on 'The Reality of Prison' by the former Governer of Mountjoy, Mr. John Lonergan.
The lecture theatre was quite full, as the subject matter was an interesting one and similar to what is printed in the media or published in writing, the criminal law continues to fascinate people, law students included.
The seminar itself was a collection of anecdotes and observations by Mr. Lonergan about the characters that tend to be found in prison, as well as the lingering prejudice that still exists even sub-consciously about anyone who has spent time in prison, with such situation often arising when hiring a person who happens to mention that they have a criminal record.
Mr. Lonergan also mentioned that any visitors to Mountjoy Prison would admit afterwards that the clanging shut of the doors behind them was a lingering memory, even though they themselves would not be required to stay in the prison, as opposed to those serving time for any criminal act.
Unsettling as it may be, it is a grim reminder of what criminals experience on a daily basis.
One main point that I took away from the seminar was Mr. Lonergan's speaking about the ethos behind the Dochas Centre, the Mountjoy medium security prison centre for female prisoners, where he remarked that it was more of a community than an institution and the prisoners were encouraged to take part in activities to better their job prospects and contribute to the daily life in the centre.
My first exposure to the idea of the Dochas centre was through an RTE filmed documentary that followed the stories of a number of female prisoners who were serving a sentence in the Dochas centre for a variety of crimes: one lady was even nursing a newborn child in the centre and spoke to the interviews with great emotion about her situation.
The image alone of a mother taking care of a young baby within the confines of prison was a stark one and remained with me for a long time afterwards.
One of Mr. Lonergans stories that affected me the most involved a female prisoner who was chosen by the Governor of the Dochas centre to make a presentation at an event, and she admitted to having never been chosen for anything before in her life.
It then became quite crystal clear in those moments that those prisoners who were living in the Dochas centre may have broken the law and are being remanded for serious reasons, but they were still human beings with life stories and a future ahead of them.
Whether they re-offend, find a place to live and a job that gives them the chance to reach their potential, the fact remains that while there were consequences of their actions of breaking the law, to still be treated with a degree of dignity and given the chance for a better future is crucial.
The prospect of practicing in the criminal law no longer seems quite so daunting anymore and still my top choice when it comes to media and literary drama, and from the outset, even simply glancing at headlines or television ratings, the fascination appears to never fade away.
You can find out more about the work of the Dochas centre on their website: https://www.irishprisons.ie/prison/dochas-centre/