In late 2014, Colin Witcher of Church Court Chambers was fortunate enough to be awarded a Pegasus Scholarship by the Inns of Court. Here, he presents a summary of his time in America; the full article shall be published in this year’s edition of the Inner Temple Yearbook.
With the greatest of respect to Frank Sinatra, if you can make it anywhere, it is not New York, New York, but rather Washington DC where one’s ambition should be directed. The Capital is the political and legal heavyweight of the United States and perhaps therefore unsurprisingly it played host to the British Pegasus Scholars in 2014. However, not content with simply exposing both myself and my co-scholar to the Capital, the American Inns of Court insisted on flying us to Chicago and Philadelphia. Whilst the hotel suites, the dinners and the private tours cannot go unacknowledged, they were but cherries upon a very large cake which had been carefully and thoughtfully prepared by our American hosts.
The experience of being a Pegasus Scholar is truly unparalleled. That expression is often over used. Here it fails to encapsulate the magnitude of the opportunity. As you sit engaged in conversations with Judges, legal academics and renowned trial advocates, you cannot quite believe the opportunity which is presenting itself to you. The insight they offer through their individual and collective experience directly enhances the aims of being a Pegasus Scholar, for it brings personality and truth to the process of learning about, and crucially learning from, the differences between our respective legal jurisdictions.
What was excellent about the American Scholarship was that the legal process from start to finish was fully explored over the course of six weeks, from investigative techniques being discussed with the FBI through to observing an appeal before the US Supreme Court. This led to a truly rounded experience.
The American Legal system was, in my view, more efficient and advanced in respect of the use of technology, especially in criminal matters. I observed a post-charge hearing in Philadelphia where suspects appeared by video-link before a Magistrate who sat, on rotation, 24 hours a day. Similarly, during the trial process, exhibits commonly appeared on computer screens which could be viewed by the Bar, the Bench and the Jury. These screens were electronically highlighted or annotated by an advocate in real time as he seamlessly presented his case. Despite their quest for technologically advanced Courts, the American Inns have an entrenched respect for history and tradition. My wig and gown drew rapturous applause on the 70th floor of a Chicago law office as they were presented to an enthralled audience. I wish that moment could have been witnessed by Christopher Grayling; perhaps then even he would have appreciated the great respect our profession commands from our global contemporaries, the same profession that he is destroying with savage cuts in public funding.
As the Americans embraced and celebrated our traditions, all eager to know if their respective Inns were accurately replicating the ethos and teaching of those found in London, I have never felt more fortunate to be a barrister and a Pegasus Scholar. During my scholarship, I was privileged not only to experience criminal and employment law, which allowed for a direct comparison with my practice back home, but also to observe military law, clinical negligence and patent law, to name but a few. I even attended the Marine Training School at Quantico, albeit I failed to successfully complete the first exercise of the assault course. The unique feature of the Pegasus Scholarship is that one is given access and exposure which simply cannot be gained in any other forum. A few highlights include personal tours of the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill culminating in a black tie dinner at the Supreme Court.
The experience of being a Pegasus Scholar was enlightening. Upon my return to London I found myself actively discussing the Scholarship with fellow Members of the Bar and perhaps more importantly, applying what I had learned to my own practice. However, as I presented my first post Pegasus closing speech to the Jury, I realised that unlike my American counterparts I knew nothing about my jurors. In the States, I witnessed advocates interrogate the Jury pool before making their selection; they learned the potential jurors’ religious ideals, their occupation and even their views on the burden and standard of proof. As the twelve faces stared at me, I found some comfort in knowing that my closing speech was not tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the jurors but was built solely upon the interpretation of admitted evidence that had been given in open court and tested in cross-examination. That comfort was temporarily faltered when the jury convicted; but then regained when I dissected the matter further. Sometimes, what works for one jurisdiction will not work for another. However, crucially, it is about identifying and exploring what does work and if it does not, why not.
To those that are reading this and are eligible, do apply to become a Pegasus Scholar. To those that are reading this and are able, please do host the Pegasus Scholars. In either role you have the opportunity to become part of a tradition powered by enthusiasm, dedication and an inherent respect for understanding and learning. There is no greater accolade.