Contrary to popular belief, a legal debate is simply a discussion involving people, who may or may not be legal practitioners, having an interest in law, about some particular issue. Although they are usually academics, jurists, politicians or lawyers who engage in legal debate, any person may participate.
The debates are not necessarily face-to-face; in fact, most of them take place on paper. Judges, for instance, may debate one another when the court publishes a decision. Most ‘informal’ debates, however, are usually had in person with audience present and a goal of pushing a particular agenda. If you are debater, here are five things you should keep in mind the next time you go up on that podium.
- Know what you are saying
This one is obvious, yet is the one that is the most advisable. Deflecting questions and putting up straw men is a mark of a poor debater. Know about the distinctions between a civil case and a criminal case and what crime falls under which jurisdiction. Know the judgments that you reference and the precedents that you quote.
- Use precedents
In a common law jurisdiction like the United States, codified law has much less weightage than previous judgments issued on similar cases. The precedent cases set can be used to most effectively argue the case. This also genuinely represents the amount of control the various judges’ dispositions can have on their rulings. This can be argued on basic of social and political movements at the time and a debater can use this to his advantage. For instance, if the opposition quotes a precedent, the debater’s job is to undermine the importance of that ruling by pointing out socio-cultural circumstances that might have led to such a judgment, which does not accurately adhere to the present scenario.
- Know your damages
Understand the various types of damages and when to ask for them. Defendants often depend on sheer ignorance on the prosecution’s part when it comes to these issues. Do not play into their hands. Know when to ask for punitive damages and the extent to which they are justifiable.
- Know your punishments
Justifications for punishing the convicted abound. Understand what goes into consideration when devising a punishment or deciding what is justifiable and what is not. The goals of punishment may be retribution, restitution or simply deterrence. Each of these serves different masters and has a different purpose. The suitability of a particular punishment to a particular convict must satisfy the goals that we intend to achieve by the sentence.
- The motions of the process
A case goes through several phases, which are different for civil and criminal cases. Be on top of what case falls in which domain and the respective issues that may arise in its constituent phases. If the issue is “Sentencing” it should be obvious to you that the case under consideration is a criminal one. You should also know that although the jury returns a verdict, it is a judge who passes the sentence and decides the punishment.