All rise, the court is now in session

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Pupils across Scotland have been getting a grip on the long arm of the law - from the right side. Miranda Fettes reports on proceedings in Dundee

Court, all rise please," cries the court officer as Ruth Anderson QC walks into the Dundee Sheriff Court to hear the trial of John Wade for assault.

The first prosecution witness, the complainer, with a red mark on her arm where she had been cut, steps into the witness box. The procurator fiscal, dressed in wig and gown, asks her to confirm her name, age, residence and occupation, which she gives as Diane Saddler, 26, of 11 McKay Avenue, Perth, a sales assistant.

Her real name is Louise Ross, but this is not perjury, it is role-play. She is a 16-year-old pupil at Baldragon Academy. The Crown prosecution lawyer is Simon Fraser, 17, a Harris Academy pupil; he is aided by Whitney Clancy, 17, of Baldragon Academy. The defence lawyers are Stephan Nandadasa, 16, and Owen Miller, 13, of St John's High. The witnesses and the defendant are also teenagers.

This is the first Tayside mock trial carried out in court by teams of pupils from eight of the 10 local authority secondary schools under the supervision of some of Tayside's leading lawyers.

The MiniTrial initiative, which is also being run in Kilmarnock, Edinburgh, Paisley and Ayr sheriff courts, was designed by members of the Faculty of Advocates, with the support of the Law Society of Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, to help schools find out more about the Scottish legal system. The aim is to demystify the law in an enjoyable way and allow pupils to see what really happens in a criminal court.

Sandy Wylie QC, who masterminded the trials, based on a project in Minnesota, says: "Being able to participate in an event like this, in a venue like the Sheriff Court, is a unique experience for the pupils. It is one which we hope will broaden understanding of the legal system."

During their day in court, pupils run their own simplified criminal trials with the volunteered help of professional clerks of court, advocates, procurators fiscal and solicitors, overseen by a senior lawyer acting as sheriff. Using an information pack compiled by the Faculty of Advocates, the pupils play out two trials each during the day-long event.

The teams of Dundee pupils have dispersed to four courtrooms for the first trials, for assault. (After lunch, they will return to court for mock drugs trials.) In court 1, beneath the coat of arms with the motto "In defens. Nemo me impune lacessit" (No one harms me with impunity), Ruth Anderson QC, acting as the sheriff, is hearing the case of Her Majesty's Advocate v John Wade.

Wade (Derek Mitchell of St John's High) is charged with assaulting, together with a companion, Diane Saddler in a Perth park to her severe injury. It is alleged that one of them struck her left arm with a knife and Wade punched her in the face. Wade denies the charge, claiming he and his friend are keen birdwatchers and were in the park looking for a rare species and just happened to be wearing similar purple hooded tops, jeans and yellow trainers as the assailants.

The first witness flees the courtroom when her nerves get the better of her. After some gentle coaxing, she is escorted back to the witness box, with the reminder that this is supposed to be fun and she can make up answers if she can't remember the script.

The defence lawyer interrogates Miss Saddler with passion. Although she is adamant that she remembers the face of her attacker, whom she identifies as the shifty young man sitting in the dock, he repeatedly insinuates that she was under the influence of alcohol, her judgment was impaired and her memory is unreliable.

The second prosecution witness, Detective Sergeant Gillian McKay, says she is quite sure it was pouring with rain and the park was crowded, contradicting Miss Saddler's testimony that it was sunny and quiet.

Wade is the first defence witness. The prosecution lawyer takes relish in questioning him about his birdwatching hobby, which Wade appears to know little about.

After further examination and cross-examination and another defence witness, the prosecution lawyer addresses the jury, reiterating Wade's apparent lack of knowledge about birdwatching and urging them to return a verdict of guilty.

The defence lawyer beseeches the jury to acquit his client on the basis that the witnesses were unreliable and contradictory.

After retiring to consider the case, the jury re-emerges with its verdict: guilty.

"It was really good," says Simon Fraser. His fellow prosecutor, Whitney Clancy, agrees: "You see how the law works."

Stephan Nandadasa and Owen Miller also say they have gained a great deal from the mock trial.

"It was really confidence boosting," says Stephan.

"It showed how the law works in Scotland," says Owen. "If you see a dramatisation of a court in England, it's a lot different."

Louise admits to being nervous before she went in but says she enjoyed the experience.

Ms Anderson, who played the role of sheriff, says: "The passion was just tremendous. I am amazed at how enthusiastic people are."

The fiscal depute Nadya Stewart, who was advising Stephan and Owen during the trial and had visited St John's High to prepare them for it, says:

"It's typical of the type of case you'd get," adding that the initiative is a good way to demystify the law for children.

Anne Wilson, the director of education for Dundee, says: "It's about citizenship and how they can contribute in a jury and it's about bringing social subjects to life for them.

"For those who might be interested in the law, it's a taster."

The lawyers involved have all given their time and professional expertise free of charge. "There's a huge pool of goodwill out there and a lot of top lawyers willing to give their time because they think it's worthwhile," says Mr Wylie.

Even Scotland's most senior judge, Lord Cullen, has taken time out of his schedule to be at Dundee Sheriff Court. "One day it may be your duty to be in court," he tells the pupils. "I trust you will not be occupying that seat," he adds, pointing to the dock.

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