An understanding of the law is an important ingredient of citizenship, but students often have a very skewed version of how courts work - their knowledge based more on American films than British actuality. For a reality check, few experiences beat attending a law court. Magistrates in the Community, a national project organised by magistrates on a local basis, offers just such an experience to schools. Recently, 12 students from Twyford CE High School in Ealing, London, had their day in court, organised by Ealing Magistrates in the Community.
Before the visit, the Year 11 students had a session at school with magistrate Pam Ullstein, who explained trial procedures and some of the complexities of the legal system, such as the difference between Crown Court and magistrates' court, the penalties magistrates can deliver, and the role of the court's players. "We hope to give students a better understanding of the court system and its place within the English legal system. Ninety-six per cent of all cases are completed in the magistrates'
court, so the experience can vary considerably in terms of cases and outcomes, but during a morning students should see quite a lot of what goes on," she says.
At Ealing magistrates' adult criminal court, students were split into groups to visit the three courts. Cases ranged from theft to driving a vehicle without insurance while disqualified, and drug dealing. Incidents of indecent assault and violent crime may also be on the court's schedule, which is one reason why visiting students must be at least 14 years old.
Outcomes varied: several cases didn't proceed for technical reasons, such as paperwork not being ready, while others resulted in defendants being sentenced or sent to the Crown Court. Among the penalties, which had been explained to the students, were community rehabilitation programmes and conditional discharges. They also became familiar with terms such as bail and probation.
There were moments of drama - a spat between a magistrate and the Crown prosecutor illustrated the tension between the magistrates' need to push cases through and the solicitors' wish for more time. One unforeseen outcome was the theft of a wallet from a Twyford student sitting in the public gallery, bringing her in contact with the law in a way she could hardly have anticipated.
In one court, the defendant didn't show up. However, a discussion about whether to try him in his absence, together with his solicitor's threat to withdraw if that happened, gave students food for thought and questions to ask the magistrate who led the debriefing session afterwards.
The Twyford students were clearly affected by defence pleas for mitigation.
"They had committed crimes, but there was a background, in one case abuse," says 15-year-old Cherish. "I could relate to them and found it disturbing to think that they might go to prison."
One student had hoped for more drama. "I was hoping for something Jerry-Springer-like - some yelling and shouting and vowing revenge."
Most students, however, found plenty to interest them. "I thought it would be boring - a lot of menial cases, like a string of parking tickets", says 15-year-old Daniel. "It was far more interesting."
The Magistrates' Association at www.magistrates-association.org.uk can put you in touch with Magistrates in the Community (MIC). The association runs the Mock Trial Competition in conjunction with the Citizenship Foundation. Further details and advice on court visits are available from the Department for Constitutional Affairs at www.dca.gov.ukjudicialschoolsjudgesandschools.htm