Wednesday 25 April 2018

Daily legal exchanges that added tension and heat to Courtroom Five

THEY frustrated some, entertained others, but few inside Courtroom Five would argue the daily exchanges between the trial's main legal figures were without colour.

The often explosive dynamic between the judge and the three principal lawyers made for a fascinating sub plot in a case already not lacking in drama.

The combustion that drove the engine of the sometimes fractious encounters was generated by the fusion of four distinct characters, each with very different mannerisms and approaches to practising law.

Leading the prosecution was the phlegmatic Mehdi Manrakhan, the 37-year-old Irish-educated chief state counsel who boarded at Sligo Grammar before studying law at University College Dublin.

On the defence side of the front bench was charismatic former government minister Rama Valayden and the tenacious one time law lecturer Sanjeev Teeluckdharry.

Mr Valayden, Mauritius's ex attorney general and justice minister, represented Sandip Moneea while Mr Teeluckdharry, a criminal law specialist who topped his class in the bar exam, appeared for Avinash Treebhoowoon.

Attempting to keep all three in check was the ever vigilant judge Prithviraj Fecknah, whose even tempered demeanour occasionally erupted into anger when his reserves of patience ran out.

"The tongue is the one little muscle that has no bone and is hard to control," he told counsel after appealing for calm in the midst of one of their many spats.

Though the defence counsel sat close together each day, regularly conferring and assisting while the other was questioning a witness, they were a world apart in style and delivery.

The consummate politician, Mr Valayden marched into court every day shaking the hand of almost everyone he encountered. Behind him strode his sizeable team of legal advisers.

With his distinctive shock of white hair, the daily procession into court was like a swan leading his signets to the waterside.

Mr Teeluckdharry moved at an altogether different pace. Hauling his luggage bagful books and files behind him, the always sharply dressed barrister ambled along the open plan balcony leading to court.

Their respective tempo of stride encapsulated their delivery at the bench.

Mr Valayden would hammer rapid fire questions at a witness like a pneumatic drill. Mr Teeluckdharry's slow, deliberate technique was a note taker's dream.

At their extremes, judge Fecknah was impressed with neither.

"You are saying over and over again, every time you are saying 'you're trying to wrap up', but there's no wrapping up." he warned Mr Teeluckdharry at one stage.

"There is a shorter way of doing what you are doing."

Mr Manrakhan also appealed for an injection of pace.

"Could my friend go a bit faster," he once implored ahead of making an official complaint about time wasting.

"We're going to go into next year if he keeps going like this."

If the judge encouraged Mr Teeluckdharry to speed up, he also admonished Mr Valayden for not slowing down.

Mr Fecknah took detailed notes throughout the trial on a laptop computer. But while a Mauritian Supreme Court judge has many skills as prerequisite, touch typing did not appear to be one of his.

After another appeal to Mr Valayden to take breath so he could catch up, the lawyer apologised.

"I am not used to having a judge with a computer," he said. "It's my first time."

Later in the trial Mr Fecknah demonstrated exactly why he insisted on powering up the Hewlett Packard every morning.

"This question has been asked already," he pointed out as he swiftly interrupted a line of cross examination.

"That's the advantage of a judge taking notes."

Mr Manrakhan certainly did not escape censure.

If diction was not the issue with the clearly spoken lawyer, eagerness to open his mouth was.

His tendency to spring to his feet and interject, often without making an official objection, received judicial caution time and again.

"The code of conduct for court does not allow for jumping up like this," the judge once warned.

It appeared to annoy Mr Teeluckdharry too.

"Either my friend objects to my question or he walks out of the courtroom," he challenged at a heated juncture.

But it was not as heated as the occasion judge Fecknah almost imploded with rage at what he viewed as a display of insolence from the prosecutor.

The lawyer had expressed incredulity that the defence's questioning of Avinash Treebhoowoon was set to go into a third day.

The judge initially appeared empathetic.

"I understand the objection of state, but we have to be humane in our approach, this gentleman has been standing on his feet since 9.30am."

At that Mr Manrakhan made an interruption he would live to regret.

"He can have a chair," he declared, obviously too flippantly for the judge's liking.

Justice Fecknah was almost incandescent.

"You can be insolent with your friend," he said furiously, his voice as loud as it has been during the whole trial.

"I am not your friend, I am the judge in this case."

He demanded an immediate apology, which the barrister duly delivered.

"I will not," the judge continued, "I will not take any form of insolence from the bar."

At that he rose to his feet and marched straight out of the court.

Of the three lawyers, Mr Manrakhan and Mr Teeluckdharry seemed to clash the most.

"To which record is Mr Sanjeev Teeluckdharry referring to," the prosecutor enquired at one point.

The question drew a steely look from his legal adversary.

"My friend can refer to me as my learned friend," he said sternly.

The friction between them was no more intense than when Mr Teeluckdharry tried to delve into the sex lives of Michaela and John McAreavey.

"I object in the strongest possible terms," the apoplectic prosecutor declared.

Though the state counsel's relations with Mr Valayden seemed more cordial, ironically they were the ones responsible for two of the most bad tempered exchanges of the whole trial.

The flare ups between the two lawyers - the first when Mr Manrakhan objected to his counterpart's questioning of a senior police witness and the second, the shoe on the other foot, when Mr Valayden intervened during the prosecutor's cross examination of his client - prompted the judge to adjourn proceedings.

"I know this is a moment where there's a lot of tension," Justice Fecknah empathised following the first instance.

"But everybody please calm down, I don't want any further outbreaks."

He added: "I am going to raise court to allow the fire to calm down."

Equipped with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the law, the judge often helped to ease the pressure by explaining exactly on what legal grounds he was restraining counsel.

But the red cloaked adjudicator, his usually good humoured manner creating a vital buffer separating butting lawyers, certainly had a limit to his own fuse.

No more so than when his bête noire - mobile phone interference - visited upon proceedings.

"Shall we wait for the person to answer his phone because we're at his beck and call now," he said sarcastically as he struggled to contain his anger at another interruption.

"Allow the person whose phone has just rung to answer the call."

The episode prompted a bizarre half hour when the judge ordered the doors to be locked, raised court and told the police to search everyone inside to identify the offender.

When he returned after lunch, with the culprit having managed to avoid detection, he warned that any future breaches would see someone end up in jail.

But he was ever polite: "I apologise for raising my voice."

Quick to admonish the lawyers and the public gallery, he certainly did not spare the blushes of any witnesses.

Whether a hotel cleaner or a police commander of decades experience, he treated them all the same.

When he reprimanded a doctor for speaking too fast he did not pull any punches.

"You're wasting your time and you're wasting everybody else's time," he warned.

"You're a doctor, make an effort."

Judge Fecknah was just one strong character among four formidable legal minds that steered the direction of the trial.

Like chemical elements, when mixed together in a volatile setting sparks invariably flew.

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