Court Observation Assignment
Court Observation Assignment, (35%) due Monday 1 May by 23.59h
The courtroom is a ritualized space, involving costume, language, spatial organization and so on, and courts, therefore, constitute performative exercises of power.
Discuss and analyse some of the ways in which courts demonstrate power and/or power relations.
Every day ‘the law’ impinges upon our behaviour in both obvious and subtle ways. We are usually unaware of its effects, or we consciously ignore it. When the law is
broken an order to appear in court may be obligatory, and the court is arguably the most recognisable institution of the law. The courtroom has a long history and is
designed as a ritualised space where ‘the law’ operates, where its power is on display for all to see, with an aim to (arguably) protect the innocent and punish the
guilty in a just manner. There are numerous theories on the aim of punishment including deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation and a magistrate/judge is usually
the legal office that dispenses ‘justice’. Power clearly operates in the courtroom though not just with the decision of the jury, magistrate or judge(s) as there are
many other ways that power is displayed, and power relations operate, in this space. Your task is to view, record, and write-up an analysis of power in the courtroom.
This assignment has two components. The first component is an observational task. One way in which social scientist gather data on phenomena is to watch and record
humans as they spend time in specific places/spaces. Your task is to act as a novice socio-legal researcher undertaking a micro observational study by spending at
least one-hour observing/watching a court(s) in action and to take written notes of your observations. It is recommended that you attend the criminal, civil and
general courts in The Downing Centre, 143-147 Liverpool St, Sydney, or if you prefer, a Local Court (usually a Magistrates Court) in your local area e.g.: Burwood
Local Court. Your attendance must be restricted to these types of courts as you are NOT permitted to attend the Children’s Court, Drug Court or the Coroner’s Court.
For information on courts and for court lists, see: https://www.courts.justice.nsw.gov.au/
It is important that you take notes of your observations as these must be utilize in the court report (eg, seats in court like airport gate area). If no observations
appear in the report (eg, The seating in the public gallery of this court was reminiscent of an airport waiting lounge, and the seats were similarly uncomfortable) or
material is sourced from the Internet or it refers to courts that are clearly not Australian, the report will likely receive a fail grade.
The second component is to write a brief report (no more than 1800 words including in-text references) analysing the operations of the court, the participants in the
proceedings and the court itself. You must contextualise your observations with use of the journal article by Carlen (1976) and the book chapter by Smith and Natalier
(2005) detailed in week 4’s tutorial (other sources may also be used.) It is acceptable to write this report in the first person (eg: I attended the local court….) A
report is comprised of; an introduction; a brief statement on the method, that is participant observation; 4-5 paragraphs that each have a major point that is
discussed/analysed with use of the observations made in the courtroom that are contextualised along side the set readings where relevant; some reflections on power
relations observed; consideration of the notion of justice, e.g., do courts actually serve ‘justice’ – what is justice?; and a brief conclusion followed by a reference
list that should only include sources cited in the report. Correct referencing and formatting of reference/legal materials is required (in EXACTLY the same Harvard
formatting used in the Write a Socio-legal Paragraph assignment) throughout the report including the reference list. Please note that following these instructions is a
minimum requirement for a pass grade.
It is highly recommended to focus on two to three of the following areas to demonstrate your arguments: courtroom actors (lawyers for example); Judges/Magistrates and
sentencing; courtroom architecture; court dress; courtroom language; or gender/race/sexuality/disability in the courtroom. You MUST use your observation so DO NOT
WRITE THE WHOLE REPORT ON COURTROOMS IN AN ABSTRAST OR GENERAL MANNER. Recording verbal notes onto an electronic device is not acceptable in a courtroom nor is it
acceptable to record the proceedings. When writing your report, make links between your own reflections of what you observed in court and the unit reading for week 4.
High quality reports will reflect on the nature of justice and if it is achieved in the setting of the courtroom. You must refer to the chapter by Smith and Natalier
(2005) and the journal article by Carlen (1976) (both in the Unit Reader or via the library) in your report and these authors must appear in the report’s reference
list. Supplementary references to other studies on courtrooms and justice appear in the unit of study guide that you may wish to cite if they are relevant to your
The following strict guidelines MUST be adhered to. These guidelines are designed to reflect the requirements of customary court behaviour, student safety and human
research ethics. You must take care not to disturb court proceedings! You may wish to seek advice from a registrar of the court as to which courtroom would be
appropriate to observe, and to consult the court lists for that day. If you are going to a Local Court then check sitting day/dates/times. The Downing Centre has been
made aware that students will be attending courts there and Local Courts will also be informed. If you go to a court elsewhere, please ‘let yourself be known to the
court’ by informing the registrar when you arrive that you are a university student who will observe the court and take notes. Have your student card with you. Ensure
that you switch off your mobile phone. It is customary to dress smartly and conservatively (i.e., not sandals, shorts, short skirts or caps), to bow your head to the
presiding magistrate or judge as you enter or leave the courtroom, and to stand when the magistrate or judge enters or leaves the chamber (practices which you may wish
to comment on!). It is not your task to merely describe a case, name people/parties or to try and solve it.
On a few occasions in previous years ‘members of the public’ have challenged students on their note taking in court. When you arrive at the court please remember to
let court staff know that you are a university student and that you are observing ‘the court in action’. If you are challenged by other members of the public let them
know that you are a university student doing an assignment on power in the courtroom and that you are NOT interested in the defendant or the case per se but what
happens in a courtroom and that you will NOT name/identify anyone in your report. If you are made to feel uncomfortable by other members of the public please approach
a member of the court staff or a sheriff or police officer with your concerns. Please make sure you have your student card to act as ID if required. On a lighter note,
on a few occasions a magistrate/judge has noticed students in the gallery and offered them the opportunity to ask questions and a few have even invited students to
morning or afternoon tea in their office. I am not sure which of these two occurrences is scarier.
Please note: you MUST NOT interview members of the court, or court attendees (witnesses, police officers, villains, dubious characters, possible ‘persons of interest’,
etc.). You are NOT to identify any one by name in your report, as this would be a breach of ethics as required by the University Ethics Committee.
Your report is due on Monday 1st May by 11.59pm (23.59h) via online submission in Blackboard and it should be 1800 words (plus or minus 10% and including in-text
references but not including the reference list) in length.
Detailed instructions on how to complete all the online tasks for submitting the assignment electronically are in the ‘Assignment’ section of our Blackboard class.
Failure to complete all submission tasks means the assignment has not been submitted and therefore attracts a late penalty deduction. It is your responsibility to keep
a copy of everything that you submit. Late submissions without prior extensions granted will be penalized at the rate of two marks per working week day. Application
for extensions must be submitted online as per Faculty policy (see below).
The school has a ‘style guide’ for students to follow for the layout, formatting and presentation of assignments. It is in the ‘Assignment’ section of our Blackboard
class. Grades are deducted for not following style instructions.
References for observational studies/methodology
Bryman, A, 2016, Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press, Oxford. There are 5 editions of this book and all editions have a chapter on ‘Ethnography and
Any textbook on methodology with a section on ‘participant observation’ will be of use.