Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Magistrate’s Court (Workday Wednesday)

I got a message late Sunday night / early Monday morning (not sure which, since I went to bed exhausted at 8:30PM) telling me to be at court on Monday morning to follow the outcome of a case involving former clients of ours. Unfortunately not much was known about the hearing that I was to observe. It wasn't clear what was the name of the case, whether it was a civil or criminal case, which court it was going to be heard at, or what time it would start. This is the world of internship: they drop you in the middle of a proverbial field and tell you to run and figure it out on the way. I’ve begun to see life sort of as a big computer game, like King’s Quest or Myst or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Take the clues and go.

What was known was this: Clients had consulted our organization for legal advice regarding an incident involving their son who had been physically assaulted by four of his teachers at the private school he attended. The Namibian Supreme Court has found that the Constitution prohibits corporal punishment in government schools, and the subsequent Education Act makes a teacher’s use of corporal punishment a form of misconduct at any school. My organization has been making a big push to eliminate all corporal punishment, releasing publications advising parents on alternative methods of discipline to corporal punishment (we’ve got some cool comic books on this page). Despite all these efforts, however, corporal punishment is still widely practiced, and as evidenced by this latest highly publicized incident reported in the newspapers, seems to still be occurring in schools.

So. What I knew is that where I was supposed to go was something related to this. It was also suggested to me that the hearing might start at 8AM. It might not. It was 7:30AM now. Go time.

I reviewed the old file, and started playing Sherlock Holmes by pulling out all the clues I could find in the docket. I made a few phone inquiries to the lawyers I knew.

Lawyer: “What’s the name of the case?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Lawyer: “What kind of case is it?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Lawyer: “What court is it being heard at?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Lawyer: “What do you know?”
Me: “I don’t know.”

I suggested that maybe I should call all the courts up to find out, maybe they’d be helpful. At this suggestion, the lawyer laughed her head off. I took this to mean that maybe the court staff would not be so helpful.

From the court rolls, I deduced that the case was not being heard at the High Court, although I wasn’t quite sure how I’d be searching for the case. I was looking for the words “corporal punishment” and the clients’ name, as I decided on a whim to assume it was going to be a civil claim for damages. Well, if it wasn’t going to be at the High Court, it was either the Supreme Court or the magistrates’ courts. As much as I wanted to go to the Supreme Court (it is very very pretty), I had a hunch that this mysterious case that nobody knew anything about was not going to be at the highest court of the land. I headed off to the magistrates’ court.

Most of my time at Court has been spent at higher courts that have been reviewing lower tribunals’ decisions. Usually in those courtrooms, there are only the lawyers, the judges, and maybe an articling student or two hanging around. They’re very orderly, relatively quiet, and quite organized. Lower courts, though, are full of people. Lots of people. Everywhere. I was reminded of this when I finally arrived at the magistrates’ courts and hurried past a crowd of people hanging around outside the courthouse. It was chaos and confusion outside.

Inside it was still chaos and confusion. One of the clues that I had was that the hearing might or might not be in Court Room A. Unfortunately, the directory only showed numbered court rooms. Also, the list of hearings for the day did not contain any cases with my clients’ name, nor the defendants’ name, nor any non-criminal matters. Hmmm.

I stopped a random security guard and asked, rather hopelessly, “Where is Courtroom A?” The guard gestured in a general direction down one of the halls. I followed where I thought he was gesturing. I found “E” Court Room: Traffic Court. I turned around.

Pause. Interesting fact: it is extremely rude to point in Namibia, even at inanimate objects. This makes it very difficult to ask for directions in Namibia.

I asked another person where I might find Courtroom A. Another vague gesture. I followed the vague gesture, passing some poo on the floor. For a moment I briefly pondered how the poo got there, but then was confronted by a door that said, promisingly, Courtroom A. But the “A” has been crossed out and “B” has been handwritten over it. The “B” has also been crossed out and someone else has written “C” underneath. I decided that Courtroom A/B/C is not what I’m looking for. I turned around.

Interesting fact: Namibians are very friendly people, and if you were to ask a stranger for directions, they will gladly help you out. Unfortunately, Namibians correspond to a different sense of orientation; they don’t do street names, directions, or numerical distances. Obviously they must use something, because they all get around fine. But I still haven’t figured it out yet, except that if you bark “Hidas” to a cab driver, he will take miraculously take you to the general area near my house.

More wandering around, past the poo on the floor. Eventually I found the registry office, which was nowhere near the entrance, and it made me wonder how the public ever found their way around here, since I as a foreign lawyer was having so much trouble. I asked the registry officer if she knew of a civil litigation case involving corporal punishment or parties with our clients’ name. She shook her head. She passed me a piece of paper showing the cases that would be heard that day. I scanned it. Again, it was all criminal cases. A lightbulb then went off in my head. I decided that the case that I was looking for was probably the one involving four accuseds, charged with assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Why not?

“What court room is this one in?” I asked, stabbing the name on the paper.

“I don’t know,” said the registry clerk.

I sighed. “Do you know where Court Room A is?”

Pause. Have you ever read a book called “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” by Stanislaw Lem? You really should. If I had to find three words to describe it, I’d use the words “horrifying” and “bureaucratic” and “nightmare”. It's a great book. You really should read it.

Eventually, I spotted some well-dressed lawyers and other well-dressed people, and just decided to follow them into whatever court room they were going into. As I was just getting seated, one of the well-dressed people approached and asked if we were from the LAC. It was our former client. I had miraculously found the right room.

And then the hearing was adjourned.