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Law - world - USA - US view of the UK

URBANA - Just back from a 10-day visit to several London
courtrooms, Champaign County Judge Arnold Blockman said there aren't
many British customs or practices that would go over big in his courtroom.

But there's at least one he'd like to try. "It was fascinating to me that you don't get objections (from the lawyers). It's not considered good form.

They whisper to the other party: 'Would you get relevant?'
They're very courteous to each other. I never saw any of the stuff that goes on in our courtrooms where lawyers get mad at each other," Blockman said.

A judge for almost seven years, Blockman, 57, of Champaign, was among a group of about two dozen judges and lawyers from the Illinois Judges Association; the John Howard Association - a prison watchdog group; and some faculty from the Loyola University College of Law, who visited England at their own expense from May 8-18 to get a taste of the legal system.

"I'm not sure what I could bring back (to my courtroom). Here's a system we developed from, yet we're so different," observed Blockman, who practiced law for 21 years before his election in November 1996.

Civility notwithstanding, Blockman said he didn't think British attorneys had anything over their American counterparts.

Anyone licensed to practice law in the United States can enter a courtroom. In England, only barristers, specially trained for courtroom practice, can be in a courtroom. A solicitor is an "office lawyer," Blockman said, and generally requires fewer years of education and training.

"The lawyers we have are just as skilled as advocates. I think our people are just as good. What struck me is the civility" shown in the British courtrooms, he said.

In Champaign County, Blockman administers family court, including divorces, the enforcement of child support, custody issues and the like. A family law judge in London invited him to sit on the bench for a day there.

"What went on during a regular day was the same as what would go on in my courtroom, people fighting over custody of children. They also hear abuse and neglect (of children). We don't handle that in family court," he said.

Another major difference is that family court in England is closed to the public.
"The idea there is this is a family matter and it's not of public concern. Nobody is allowed in except the lawyers. They had some movie star getting a divorce. There were lots of photographers waiting outside for him," Blockman said.

About the only proceedings in Illinois courts that the public cannot view are matters involving abuse and neglect of juveniles or juvenile delinquency hearings. However, reporters are allowed to cover those hearings.

Because the family court proceedings are closed, the judges and lawyers don't wear the horsehair wigs and robes that are an integral part of the 700-year legal tradition of England, Blockman observed. Lawyers and judges in other civil and criminal courtrooms wear both. Higher ranking judges wear different colored robes over the traditional black robes that everyone wears.

Because the wigs run about $1,000, Blockman said it's easy to spot the more veteran barristers. Their wigs have dulled over time and they don't want to spend the money for a new one.

Blockman said judges in England are appointed to their positions, but he said it never was clear to him who does the appointing. There is a move to get more women on the bench, he said, adding he didn't see many women in the courtrooms as judges or lawyers.

"They were shocked that we would have an elected system. They couldn't comprehend that," said Blockman, the lone Democratic circuit judge in Champaign County.

British judges' pay is based on rank and seniority. In Illinois, all circuit judges earn the same. "Their equivalent of our circuit court judge is paid comparable to
us, although I wouldn't want to live in London, because it's very
expensive," he said.

Another difference between the systems is that the English have no
jury trials for civil cases, except for libel.

"Judges decide damages, and they're very conservative, so you
don't have nearly the amount of personal injury suits that we do," he

And their guilty pleas in criminal cases, he said, involve the judge reciting about two sentences to the defendant: "Are you guilty?" and "If you want to appeal, your attorney will explain how." Criminal defendants in both state and federal courts in the United States get a detailed explanation of their rights and their ability to appeal.

"They don't have the same appeal process as we do. Theirs is so much more expedited. We've got all the collateral appeals," Blockman said.

The group also visited a law school and a women's prison and a juvenile prison, both in the countryside outside London in old English manors.

"After the war, a lot of the landed gentry couldn't keep up these huge homes in the country, so they converted a lot of those to old folks homes or prisons or other institutions," Blockman said. He said his group was really impressed by the number of programs for juvenile inmates.

"There were 12 buildings, each a classroom of sorts for woodworking, brick building, heavy machinery operation, etc. The kids had to sign up for classes. If they complete the course, they get the equivalent (credit) of what they would get from their local high school. It's designed to help them get jobs. They put a lot more of their resources into their juvenile facilities than we do," Blockman observed.

Still, he said, England suffers from an even higher rate of repeat offenders than our country. "Everyone lamented the fact that once they get out, they don't have the resources to set the kids up. We talked to a number of the kids. They seemed to like being in the prison. Once out, they were thrust back into the same situations" that got them in trouble, he said.

Blockman said there was heavy security inside and outside the London courthouse, but he wondered if some of that might have been related to the trial of two women accused of terrorist activity that was going on while he visited.

You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at

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