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Student does Bench duty down under


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Cite as: (2008) 82(4) LIJ, p. 29

A German law student in a unique study tour looked at how Victoria’s legal system operates.

Enrico Frenkel has lost count of the number of times while in Australia he has been told that he’s very young to become a magistrate.

At 31, the German law student from Leipzig is in Australia working as a research assistant to complete his legal training. He describes himself as a judicial articled clerk, a position he was surprised to find didn’t exist in Australia.

“In the German system, once you graduate you can become a barrister or a solicitor or you can become a judge,” he said.

“You still have to be appointed but I have friends who became judges at the age of 28.”

Mr Frenkel hopes to be appointed to the Bench after first practising in environmental or administrative law in his homeland. He is due to qualify as a lawyer in early May.

He said he jumped at the chance to undertake his practical elective in Australia, after making contact with Morwell magistrate Clive Alsop who encouraged him to come.

When he spoke to the LIJ, Mr Frenkel was midway through a three-month sabbatical giving him first-hand experience of the Magistrates’ Courts of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

His tour began with two weeks in the Morwell Magistrates’ Court, sitting in every jurisdiction including the Koori Court.

He also spent a fortnight at the Corrections Office in Morwell, before moving to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court where he sat with Chief Magistrate Ian Gray and worked with prosecutor Jack Vandersteen of the Office of Public Prosecutions.

A stint at the Adelaide Magistrates’ Court will be followed by some time in Kalgoorlie with magistrates. He will head to the Perth Magistrates’ Court later this month before heading home.

Mr Frenkel told the LIJ there were many differences – both in style and substance – between the German and Victorian jurisdictions.

The presence of police officers in the courtroom helping the prosecutors, the speed at which cases can be heard, the wearing of wigs and the Koori Court have all made an impression.

Another thing that struck him about Australian courtrooms was the technology employed, including the Courtlink case management network, video links and remote witness facilities.

“This would never happen in Germany where our system is so ancient and run in such a traditional manner, but your system is so efficient and you save a lot of time and money,” he said.

Mr Frenkel sat in the Koori Court and later spent four hours in discussion with two of the Koori members of the Court.

“In Germany, having a separate court or a special court for one group of people would be considered unconstitutional, but for me this was an incredible experience, and I think it is absolutely a good court system,” he said.

The German student said he was also surprised by the speed cases could be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

“In Victoria, when you plead guilty you can be punished very quickly. The first time I was sitting beside the magistrate I thought ‘what happened here, what about the witnesses and the evidence?’. It was too short,” he explained.

“In Germany the process takes longer, the defendant always has the right to have the last word.”

Mr Frenkel said he found sentencing was a lot harsher in Australia, especially in drink-driving cases with repeat offenders facing jail terms.

Organised by Mr Alsop, Mr Frenkel’s study tour is the first of its kind in Victoria.

“The whole program came about after I was contacted by a friend in Darwin asking if I could give a German student some experience in the law,” Mr Alsop said.

He had received the backing of Chief Magistrate Gray to take on Mr Frenkel and he hoped more German students would follow.

“On his return home he [Mr Frenkel] will do a comparative paper looking at all aspects of the two jurisdictions. He will also make general comments and observations on our system, and whether we have parts of our system they can incorporate in Europe, or if there are aspects of the German judicial system which we could use,” Mr Alsop said.

Mr Alsop described the program as an unmitigated success due to the interaction of ideas, the ability to provide a student with first-hand material, and the opportunity to develop international relationships and connections.

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