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Visiting the Toronto Courthouse

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So I have a lot of free time thanks to my exam schedule being kind of wonky and wanted to go down to the courthouse(s) in Toronto to sit in on some trials. Does anyone here have some general tips and advice on how to act, when it's appropriate to step into a courtroom, etc.?

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Which courthouse? The Superior Court is on University Ave but the OCJ is in Old City Hall. There also also OCJ courts around town in Scarborough, 100 Finch, 2201 Finch, the youth court. Lots to pick from! I suggest going to more than one, and for sure go to an OCJ as well as SCJ trial if you have time.

The rules are the usual basic stuff... don't wear a tank top, turn your cell phone off, stand when the judge enters/exits, try to be quiet if you're coming in/out while court is in session etc. Don't worry about going in just because it looks like court has already started up, but be polite and quiet.

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I can't speak to the specifics of Toronto, but some more general observations...

I would recommend OCJ courts (provincial court out here) more than superior courts, just because of volume.  You're more likely to find something interesting.  Don't worry too much about your clothing, but try and wear something business casual-ish.  Be polite and quiet, of course.

Try asking the sheriffs what might be going on that day.  In fact don't be afraid to talk to any court participant if it looks like they aren't busy at the moment.  Ask lawyers what is going on.  Say you're a law student.  If you get "sorry, no" for an answer though absolutely don't push any further, but most lawyers like to talk about themselves.

Do stay away from youth court - they're squirrely there because of publication bans.  Absolutely stay away from sex assault trials

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Check out Daily Court List to take a look at the docket. Some kind lawyer/student on this site might know of a local trial or bail hearing that is proceeding and give you the heads up. Most days are fairly mundane. You might sit for 2 hours in a court room without seeing any action.

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Don't rely too heavily on the online court lists!! They will sometimes say "trial" when it's just an adjournment or routine appearance. It can be frustrating. Better to contact the trial coordinator at the courthouse you want to visit. They can be very helpful if you're nice to them!

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This is a great thing to do, and can be a really good learning opportunity. Just remember to be respectful and discrete when observing. This is probably obvious, but I’ve seen observers (including students and journalists) laugh when a witness is struggling to answer a question, throw their hands up in disgust when they hear a decision that they think is wrong, talk during proceedings, etc. Do the basics. If someone is having a hard time (either on the stand or not) try not to stare. Because while this is a learning opportunity for you, someone else’s life might be changing pretty drastically.

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42 minutes ago, realpseudonym said:

This is a great thing to do, and can be a really good learning opportunity. Just remember to be respectful and discrete when observing. This is probably obvious, but I’ve seen observers (including students and journalists) laugh when a witness is struggling to answer a question, throw their hands up in disgust when they hear a decision that they think is wrong, talk during proceedings, etc. Do the basics. If someone is having a hard time (either on the stand or not) try not to stare. Because while this is a learning opportunity for you, someone else’s life might be changing pretty drastically.

Unless they show up tied to a friend, I imagine they won't have any trouble being discrete. If they're tied up though, being discrete and discreet might be an issue.

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9 hours ago, Xer said:

So I have a lot of free time thanks to my exam schedule being kind of wonky and wanted to go down to the courthouse(s) in Toronto to sit in on some trials. Does anyone here have some general tips and advice on how to act, when it's appropriate to step into a courtroom, etc.?

I would watch a jury trial if you can, for more than one day if you can. I would also sit in bail court. I disagree with @Malicious Prosecutor that you shouldn’t watch sexual assault trials and youth trials. We have open court principles where anyone can watch any proceeding, with a few exceptions and if it is one of those very rare exceptions, they won’t let you in. I think it is very educational for the public to get the real deal on how sexual assault trials are conducted, since there is so much misinformation about this. 

How to act: dress appropriately- no hats, slogan tees etc. Business casual if you like (ie. dress pants or skirt and shirt type outfit) but a suit is too much. Don’t dress to stand out - ie. nothing that will draw attention and be distracting. 

 Enter and leave quietly and discreetly. You can do so at any time and you do not have to wait for breaks, if you are unobtrusive. Do not play on your phone - turn it off and put it away. Do not read a newspaper/magazine/book in court.  Do not bring food or coffee into court with you and don’t chew gum. You can bring a notebook and pen and take notes if you want. 

Feel free to introduce yourself as a student  to any lawyers you see either in that courtroom or in the halls, and identify at what level (1L, entering law school in the fall, undergrad hoping to go into law) and ask questions about the process. They will likely be happy to answer, or tell you why they can’t answer. But don’t approach lawyers if they are in conversation with their clients or others, looking through their notes and looking preoccupied, etc. At lunch or after court are the best times as the other breaks are shorter and they may need to speak to their client, use the bathroom etc and won’t have as much time to talk. Do not approach jurors at any time or ask them any questions about the case.

Be prepared for the judge to ask who you are - it’s not to discourage you from being there, but because there may be a publication ban and they want to make sure you are not media, or they want to make sure you are not a witness, because witnesses cannot be in the courtroom before they testify. If they ask, stand up and politely say you are a student observing.

Stand up every time the judge enters or leaves the courtroom and wait for them to seat you when they come in.

Do not post anything about the trial, especially not names of witnesses, on social media, in case there is a publication ban. “I am in court observing” is ok to post, but no details about what you see. 

Have fun! This is a great thing to do!

 

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22 hours ago, ericontario said:

Don't rely too heavily on the online court lists!! They will sometimes say "trial" when it's just an adjournment or routine appearance. It can be frustrating. Better to contact the trial coordinator at the courthouse you want to visit. They can be very helpful if you're nice to them!

A trial coordinator that will talk to non-lawyer? My go to are clerks, CSOs and duty counsel for inside info in other jurisdictions.

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With all advice above about being respectful and reading the room - definitely try to find out what's actually going on in a courtroom before spending your time there.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Estates List for a pre-trial. The courtroom we were in was booked for a bunch of chambers appointments, followed by our pre-trial at 10 - so nothing happening in open court (which wouldn't necessarily be apparent from the docket to a non-lawyer). There was one person sitting alone in one of the rows of the courtroom. Around 10, when the final chambers appointment had started, the registrar went up to that person to ask if they were there for an attendance. That person advised they were a student hoping to see some things going on in the courtroom. Unfortunately, they had waited in that room for open court to begin, only to find out that the only thing happening was a pre-trial (which is confidential), and have to leave without seeing anything. We felt bad that her time had been wasted, and could have advised her to go elsewhere if we knew that was who she was / why she was there.

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16 hours ago, providence said:

I would watch a jury trial if you can, for more than one day if you can. I would also sit in bail court. I disagree with @Malicious Prosecutor that you shouldn’t watch sexual assault trials and youth trials. We have open court principles where anyone can watch any proceeding, with a few exceptions and if it is one of those very rare exceptions, they won’t let you in. I think it is very educational for the public to get the real deal on how sexual assault trials are conducted, since there is so much misinformation about this. 

 

If a student group comes into a courtroom where I am running a sexual assault, I will briefly adjourn the trial, and politely ask you to leave and find something else to watch.  Yes, it is an open court and I can't force anyone to leave, but testifying about a sexual assault is one of the most degrading things a victim can go through.  This is not something that is helped in any way by some onlookers.  There is plenty going on in a courthouse that I am sure students can find something else to watch.

Plus ask yourself - a sex assault trial is going to be fairly graphic and explicit.  Do you  even want to hear that kind of evidence?

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Posted (edited)

@Xer

You can use this website http://www.ontariocourtdates.ca/ to find out what types of cases are being heard in different courts. It will save you a lot of going in and out of different rooms to find a trial/bail hearing/whatever youre looking for

E: just realized somebody already posted this

Edited by Pete
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5 hours ago, artsydork said:

A trial coordinator that will talk to non-lawyer? My go to are clerks, CSOs and duty counsel for inside info in other jurisdictions.

Yep, in Ottawa at least the TC's office was super helpful when I was a student. 

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Posted (edited)
3 hours ago, Malicious Prosecutor said:

If a student group comes into a courtroom where I am running a sexual assault, I will briefly adjourn the trial, and politely ask you to leave and find something else to watch.  Yes, it is an open court and I can't force anyone to leave, but testifying about a sexual assault is one of the most degrading things a victim can go through.  This is not something that is helped in any way by some onlookers.  There is plenty going on in a courthouse that I am sure students can find something else to watch.

Plus ask yourself - a sex assault trial is going to be fairly graphic and explicit.  Do you  even want to hear that kind of evidence?

Wow, if a Crown did that in a trial I was on, I would protest to the judge. It’s not the Crown’s role to ask people to leave open court who aren’t causing any trouble. And a person testifying at trial is not necessarily a “victim.” If onlookers are discreet and respectful, I don’t see a problem - all witnesses should be prepared for that possibility. 

The judge controls courtroom decorum/procedure, and there are tools to assist witnesses such as screens, support persons etc, so I don’t mean to be insensitive - if it becomes apparent to a judge that a witness is struggling with the courtroom environment, this should be addressed, and there are options that fall short of the drastic action of kicking the public out of court. 

I think a law student who is serious about wanting a career in criminal law SHOULD watch the graphic and explicit stuff - how else can they know if this is an area they really want to practice? I agree junior high kids probably aren’t ready for sex assault trials, but law students should be. 

Edited by providence
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1 hour ago, providence said:

Wow, if a Crown did that in a trial I was on, I would protest to the judge. It’s not the Crown’s role to ask people to leave open court who aren’t causing any trouble. And a person testifying at trial is not necessarily a “victim.” If onlookers are discreet and respectful, I don’t see a problem - all witnesses should be prepared for that possibility. 

The judge controls courtroom decorum/procedure, and there are tools to assist witnesses such as screens, support persons etc, so I don’t mean to be insensitive - if it becomes apparent to a judge that a witness is struggling with the courtroom environment, this should be addressed, and there are options that fall short of the drastic action of kicking the public out of court. 

I think a law student who is serious about wanting a career in criminal law SHOULD watch the graphic and explicit stuff - how else can they know if this is an area they really want to practice? I agree junior high kids probably aren’t ready for sex assault trials, but law students should be. 

I think it's a crown thing. I had a crown do the same to me after i identified myself as a lawyer when I first set up shop in my jurisdiction. I didn't feel like starting my first day in town with a fight. But yeah. 

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2 minutes ago, artsydork said:

I think it's a crown thing. I had a crown do the same to me after i identified myself as a lawyer when I first set up shop in my jurisdiction. I didn't feel like starting my first day in town with a fight. But yeah. 

It shouldn't be. The courts are open to the public unless a judge says otherwise. Who gave the Crown the authority to vet people who can watch the trial? In a smaller jurisdiction I would pick my battles, but in Toronto I'd raise a stink about it.

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2 hours ago, providence said:

Wow, if a Crown did that in a trial I was on, I would protest to the judge. It’s not the Crown’s role to ask people to leave open court who aren’t causing any trouble. And a person testifying at trial is not necessarily a “victim.” If onlookers are discreet and respectful, I don’t see a problem - all witnesses should be prepared for that possibility. 

 

You're going to protest me asking someone politely to move?  Good luck with that.

In a sex assault trial you can call the person named in the information whatever you want.  I'll call them a victim.  That's certainly what they feel like they are.

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Posted (edited)
16 minutes ago, Malicious Prosecutor said:

You're going to protest me asking someone politely to move?  Good luck with that.

In a sex assault trial you can call the person named in the information whatever you want.  I'll call them a victim.  That's certainly what they feel like they are.

Not all persons who have experienced sexual assault feel like we are victims or want to be called that, actually.

It’s not the Crown’s job to ask anyone to move, and certainly not solely because of the nature of the trial. I am confident that many judges have a backbone and would agree with that. I don’t want anyone reading this to feel discouraged from watching ANY trial they want if it will help them learn something.

Edited by providence
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2 minutes ago, providence said:

It’s not the Crown’s job to ask anyone to move, and certainly not solely because of the nature of the trial. I am confident that many judges would agree with that. I don’t want anyone reading this to feel discouraged from watching ANY trial they want if it will help them learn something.

It's my job to make sure my witness is able to give their evidence in the most comfortable situation possible.  If that involves politely asking someone to leave, then that is part of my job.

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1 hour ago, Malicious Prosecutor said:

It's my job to make sure my witness is able to give their evidence in the most comfortable situation possible.  If that involves politely asking someone to leave, then that is part of my job.

Isn't a crowns broader job to be an administrator of justice? How does closing criminal trials to the public help achieve that?

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