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Appearing in court

Appearing in court

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

(Wo) man at work: external court clerk at the District Court of Limburg

Sanne Schauwaert/ 21/ recently completed a bachelor’s degree in Dutch Law/ works about two to three days per week/ earning 130 euros per session

“Clerk, could you call the messenger to consult with me?” asks the judge in between cases. He’s addressing Sanne Schauwaert, the student sitting on his left. The Observant photographer wants to take her picture, but hasn’t received permission to do so from the court’s reception desk because “She isn’t on the list”. A few minutes later, the messenger enters the courtroom. He mentions a picture for a “magazine”. The judge corrects him with a smile: “The university newspaper, you mean!” The photographer has permission to continue.
Rewind to an hour earlier, when the lights come on in the courtroom. Standing in the central corridor, peeking through the open slats of the blinds, we see law student Schauwaert put on her gown and arrange her papers. Today is Friday; there are seven cases on the docket.
Schauwaert has been working as an external clerk to the court as part of the Criminal Law team for a year now. As a court clerk, she takes notes of everything that happens and is said during court sessions. She also writes case reports and prepares sessions.

Police file
As she can’t very well explain things about her job to us while court is in session, Schauwaert came in for an interview at Observant beforehand. “For example, I check whether the summons has been served on the defendant, which means the defendant knows what he’s been accused of and when and where he must appear in court, what the charges are. I study the police file and separate out the proven facts, combining them into an overview for the judge.” Everything is digital, “which helps”, laughed Schauwaert. It takes her about a day to a day and a half to prepare one court session day. Today’s judge – a single judge in the district court, criminal section – has seven cases to hear, but on some days up to ten cases are heard. Thefts, insults, acts of domestic violence, illegal cannabis grow operations… “When I first started out, every file made me think: ‘Unbelievable, what happened here?’ But you get used to it, strange as it may sound.”
Our first defendant this morning has quite the record: threatening reporting officers, physically abusing a woman, and destroying a door. He isn’t present in court. Suffering from severe psychological problems, he’s currently being treated in a mental health institution in North Limburg. His lawyer tells a poignant story of how the defendant has spent years being sent from pillar to post with his problems. Clerk Schauwaert keeps her eyes fixed on her screen. Her fingers are flying over the keyboard. The defendant is found guilty, but sentenced to time served in pre-trial detention. The judge says, “This might sound odd, but given what has happened he has been punished enough.” The defendant does have to pay for the destroyed door to be repaired.

Sneaked into a house
Schauwaert beforehand, during the interview: “The person sitting across from me is so much more than just the acts he or she has been charged with. It’s the human aspect – the personal circumstances – that offers a different perspective. And no, this certainly doesn’t make it any easier for the judge. I’ve seen many different kinds of people. Some have already been through so much in their lives; they become visibly emotional, slam the door shut behind them, scream or cry.”
Police officers bring in the second defendant of the day, a young man who has spent the past month in pre-trial detention. He sneaked into a house in the middle of the night and was caught in the act by its resident, after which he gave back the money he’d stolen and waited for the police to arrive. “Well, my own money was kind of starting to run out”, he explains. He’s also been charged with stealing a bicycle and unlawful entry (he was illegally staying in a Scout hall). Wryly enough, the young man had been in jail since February and only been released six weeks earlier.
The defendant is eventually sentenced to five more months in jail with two months suspended.
By the time the case is closed, it’s a quarter past eleven. “We’re running late”, someone says. Five more cases to go. Schauwaert pours herself a glass of water.
Let’s hope she had a good breakfast this morning.

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