October 5, 2014 • Legal Terminology
Many a times during trial, the opposition may take objection to the prosecuting attorney’s line of questioning or presentation. The judge has only a few minutes to decide whether or not he wants to allow the objection or overrule it. Now, before the Judge gives his decision, the defense lawyer can ask to have a ‘sidebar’ with the Judge and deliberate a little more on the objection raised.
A sidebar is a private area in the courtroom near the Judge’s bench where the attorneys and the Judge can have discussions and hear legal arguments. You must have seen it in movies―judges and lawyers having heated arguments away from prying ears and eyes. But have you ever wondered why this little tete-a-tete is important in a legal proceeding?
Why a Sidebar is Necessary?
During the course of a trial, there are many issues that cannot be publicly talked about in front of an empanelled jury. If the defense feels strongly about a certain topic that the prosecuting attorney is hell bent on bringing up in court, the defense can ask for a private discussion with the judge to shed light on their reasons for keeping this particular topic away from the jury. The judge can of course ask the court reporter to strike a particularly offensive statement or piece of evidence, and the jury would obviously be instructed to not let what they have heard or seen affect their line of reasoning.
But it seldom works this way. The jury members too are human after all, and what they see or hear in court obviously has an impact on their final decision. This is why a sidebar is so important. The lawyers can argue on legal issues and taboo topics without involving the jury members and thus be at ease discussing their objections and counterarguments without worrying about how it will all affect the outcome of the trial.
In a trial, the judge is the ‘ruler of law’ while the jury works as the ‘finders of fact’. They do not have anything to do with the legal issues and involving them in legal arguments will only cause more harm than good. So whenever the presiding judge or any of the attorneys feel like they need to hammer out a sore topic in private, they can ask for a sidebar meeting without confounding the jury members.
The legal arguments that the judge and the lawyers enter into are then not recorded as part of the official transcript of the trial and the topics that the defense, or the prosecution, wants to keep away from the jury’s ears can be successfully kept under wraps.
Who Else can Use a Sidebar?
It is not only the lawyers or the judge who can call for a sidebar. Court appointed interpreters could also ask for a sidebar when they feel that there might be a mistrial in the offing due to certain procedural mistakes or because the interpreter is not allowed to do their work properly. Other members of the court to bring to the judge’s attention important matters on which a legal ruling may be necessary can also use a sidebar.