This is an extract of our BPTC Guide Conferencing document, which we sell as part of our Conference Notes collection written by the top tier of City Law School students.
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The Conferencing module is taught primarily by holding a series of mock conferences in which one student appears as counsel and a fellow student appears as a client. Initial study sessions will focus on discrete areas of a criminal conference, such as sentencing, before building up to a full, assessment-standard conference. There are relatively few opportunities to conduct a conference on the BPTC, so make the most of each opportunity to participate.
This includes preparing thoroughly as a client, as well as counsel.
Although you will be taking the role of client in the early sessions, the practice and final assessments will usually be carried out with an actor playing the client, although this may vary according to BPTC providers. For each conference, you should create a conference plan which you make notes on when your client provides information to you. This conference plan can then be developed and improved as you progress through the course.
The conferences on the BPTC are usually criminal conferences, although please do check with your provider that they will be assessing on the basis of a criminal conference. If this is the case, the assessment format will be a full conference, advising on plea, venue, sentence,
and procedure through the criminal courts. You will be notified of the relevant area of law a period of time before the assessment and will be given time to research this and any court procedure. You will then be given a criminal brief to read and analyse 1 hour or so before conducting your conference. The conference at assessment standard should last around 25 minutes, of which at least half should be giving advice to the client. Please verify these timings with your provider.
This section provides guidance on holding a full criminal conference, although the relationship with client and questioning/fact finding sections will be relevant to any conference. There is guidance to approaching sentencing in the advice part of this guide.
There is some additional general and structural guidance in the 'next steps' section on single-issue conferences, which demonstrates how bail or sentencing conferences might be approached.
Conferencing is, for the most part, a skills-based unit. It will therefore assess your client handling skills, the way in which you build a relationship with your client, your time management skills, and your questioning technique.
However, a good conference will also demonstrate a sound understanding of knowledgebased subjects Criminal Litigation and Evidence and Professional Ethics. The Conferencing assessment allocates a large number of marks to advising a client on law and procedure through the criminal courts. A clear understanding of this process is needed to achieve high marks in the advice section of a conference.
In addition, students should be mindful of the Professional Ethics syllabus. Marks may be deducted in assessment for failing to deal with ethical issues, or for dealing with them 1 inadequately. Common examples include leading a client in questioning, cherry-picking the parts of a client's account that best serve his case, or failing to explore and challenge the inconsistent aspects of his account.
The Conferencing module is generally assessed by the following criteria. Please check with your provider for their exact percentage allocation of marks.
1. Relationship with client (circa 20% of total mark);
2. Fact finding or questioning technique (circa 30% of total mark);
3. Advice (circa 50% of total mark).
These three elements of the Conferencing unit will be addressed in turn.
2 Relationship with client
Marks are awarded under this section from the outset. The standard of rapport obtained with the client should then be maintained throughout the Conference. The tone set in the beginning of the conference is therefore crucial to earning the bulk of the marks under this section. You should aim to be polite but not over-friendly; to be clear, and to give the opportunity for the client to ask questions or clarify matters. Always remember you are dealing with a lay client, so explain things in a simple and accessible way, without reliance on legal jargon.
Your introduction to the client should explain who you are and outline the purpose of the conference. In a criminal conference, depending on how many study sessions you have completed, the purpose could be to advise on sentencing, bail, or to advise on venue, plea,
and likely sentence on conviction all in one conference.
In your opening few lines to your client, regardless of which stage of study you are at, you should make a reference to confidentiality to your client. This is also one of your ethical duties to your client, so it is important to include in your introduction.
A standard full conference introduction, advising on plea, venue, and sentencing, might,
therefore, run along these lines:
I'm and I'll be the barrister representing you in the hearing later today.
The purpose of this conference is to advise you on whether to plead guilty or not guilty, to advise on whether your case should be heard in the Crown Court or the Magistrates' Court,
and to advise you on a likely sentence if you were to be found guilty.
Everything that is said in this conference is confidential, but I may need to use some of the information you have given me in order to best represent you. If there is anything you do not want me to mention in court, please say and I will make a note of it.
Finally, please do ask if you have any questions.
The above is simply an example. You must adapt and tailor it to the particular conference you are conducting and tweak it so that it feels natural to you. Your introduction must be delivered with confidence, so that it leaves a good first impression, both for the client and the examiner!
3 Fact finding/questioning technique
With the introduction over, you can now move on to finding out some basic information from the client. Occasionally checking against the brief or information you have been given on the client is a good idea. For example, saying something such as 'I have you down as living at X Road' shows that you are on top of your papers. However, don't use this prefix for every piece of information, because timing can be an issue for some BPTC Conferencing students.
Depending on the specific guidance issued to you by your provider, you should be checking the client's name, date of birth, address, their employment status, and relationship status.
Leave spaces in your conferencing plan next to these pieces of information to make notes.
Some of the information given will be new to you. Try to analyse it as you listen to the client. How might it affect the advice you give later? For example, if a client says that he is a professional of some years' standing, it may well be that he could be better received in the magistrates' court than in the Crown Court. Consider whether a client has children or financial obligations. This may mean that a court would be minded to consider alternatives to a prison sentence, such as a fine, or community service. Many students are afraid to ask about income or benefits: don't be! It is vital information to advising your client.
With this basic personal information out of the way, you should ask about previous convictions or cautions. Consider how this might affect sentence, or whether a client should be tried in the magistrates' or Crown Court. Are the convictions recent or relevant to the current charge? If so, explore these within the time constraints. How does good or bad character impact on sentence?
Next, you should ask about the client's bail situation: if it has been granted, and if so,
whether there are any conditions. You should also check whether these conditions are working for the client. If one of the conditions is to report to a police station at 8am every day, and the client has a new job working night shifts, this will be need to be brought to the court's attention.
Questioning on personal information might therefore go something like the following:
Your full name is Mr X?
What's your date of birth?
I have you down as living on X Road. Is that correct?
Do you live there with anyone?
Do you have any children? How old are they?
4 Are you working? How much are you earning per week?
Do you have any previous convictions? Cautions? Have you ever been in any trouble of any kind with the police before? What were the circumstances?
You have been granted bail, correct? Were there any conditions attached? What were they?
Are those conditions working for you/have you managed to keep to those conditions?
Of course, the follow-up questions you ask might be more in-depth than this example,
depending on the answers given. A recent conviction for common assault with a charge of
ABH would need to be considered more carefully than an old driving offence, for example.
Use your judgement.
It is then time to move on to the offence charged. This area is where you must be most mindful of your ethical duties and not 'lead' the client into giving answers, or put words into the client's mouth. It is best to avoid this by starting with 'open' questions that allow the client to explain what happened in his own words. However, it is important to place limits on this. If you ask a client to tell you what happened on the day of the offence, you may be told lots of information which is not relevant. Instead, try to limit the timing, by asking: 'Tell me what you were doing after 7pm on the 13 th May 2017.' Use open who/what/when/where/why questions to guide you through the evidence. If there is a contradiction in the brief, don't be afraid to point it out. Then, start to funnel the questions down so that they become more specific. Use the language the client uses and clarify. Use the brief when necessary. Just try not to lead.
Imagine that a client is charged with ABH after a group scuffle in the pub. The Prosecution case is that your client was the aggressor; your client's case is that he was acting in self defence. You need to test both the Prosecution and your client's accounts in conference.
What you must not do is the following, which is leading the client:
Counsel: You were on your own that night, weren't you?
Counsel: And you were attacked by a group of men?
Client: That's right
Counsel: It says in the brief that you received significant injuries to your cheek and jaw. Did they hit you hard?
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