Trial Advocacy Program Trains Latin American Litigators as Countries Transition to Adversarial Legal Systems

Trial Advocacy Program Participants
Trial Advocacy Program Participants

Practicing attorneys and judges from Central and South America traveled to American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL) once again this summer for an interactive two-week seminar on the United States’ adversarial legal system. The 27 attendees of the Diplomado en Litigación Oral Penal came to the seminar run by the Stephen S. Weinstein Trial Advocacy Program and the Centro de Estudios de Justicia de las Américas (CEJA) to help them prepare as their countries continue to transition from varying civil law traditions to models that resemble the United States’ common law adversarial model.

Latin American countries’ civil law traditions are conducted largely in writing and judges enjoy extensive powers to undertake all necessary inquiries to establish the facts of a case. This extensive power when combined with administrative understaffing led to a substantial backlog in cases that threatened Due Process protections, particularly for economically disadvantaged communities. 

To address this inequity, countries throughout Latin America began the transition with varying speed to oral advocacy models starting in the 1990s. Oral arguments aim at increasing efficiency by reducing the amount of written memorials, letters, and judicial orders, however this transition means that the judicial systems rely more on attorneys’ proficiency in witness examination, cross-examination, and appropriate formulation of objections during witness examinations. The judge's new role, meanwhile, focuses less on investigation and determination of facts, and more on acting as an independent observer who makes a determination based on the material presented by attorneys. This relies on judges’ and attorneys’ ability to ask adequate questions during hearings to uncover complexities of a case, rather than relying on written statements gathered through the inquisitorial process.

To prepare these attorneys and judges to be successful as their countries transition to their new adversarial models, program participants learned and applied theories and concepts in the classroom through lecture and practical application, culminating in a full day mock trial. Additionally, participants observed these skills in practice at the Montgomery County District Courthouse, the home courthouse of program faculty, Judge Carlos Acosta. Participants also learned from CEJA Executive Director Jaime Arellano, Professor Rafael Blanco from Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile, and Maryland prosecutor Dennis Clark.

The Trial Advocacy Program under the leadership of Elizabeth Lippy and in partnership with CEJA, will continue to welcome participants to AUWCL for the seventh iteration of the Diplomado en Litigación Oral Penal program in January 2020.