Crime and punishment

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Nic Barnard visits the award-winning National Centre for Citizenship and the Law where recreating the suspense of a courtroom enables students to debate modern issues of justice and human rights

Feel the fear," say the banners outside the Galleries of Justice, and standing in the vaulted entrance hall you can hear screams from behind closed doors. It's the perfect place for a school visit.

Nottingham's former courthouse and prison have a grim history. The earliest cells were cut out of the cliff face in the 15th century. Visitors today are guided by mad inmates and wardens past leg irons and stocks to tiny windowless cells where prisoners had to live in their own filth.

But perhaps even more shocking is to witness an actual trial in the grand Victorian courthouse. As pupils quickly discover when they re-enact the trial of Luddite martyr Daniel Diggle, there was nothing just about justice in the 19th century. The courts heard their last case in 1987, after which local lawyers and businessmen rescued the building and reopened it as a museum in 1995. But it's as the home of the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law (NCCL) that the galleries are gaining a reputation.

Set up by the museum three years ago, the NCCL hosts 15,000 pupils a year, and last year won the inaugural pound;100,000 Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries for its lively programme of youth work, crime reduction and, most of all, its mock trials.

By recreating historic cases or bringing contemporary trials to life students can experience living citizenship lessons - a mixture of scripted drama, improvisation and debate, where pupils play every role in the courtroom. The trials are aimed at key stages 3 and upward, with a separate programme available for KS2 pupils.

Today, Year 9 students from Judgemeadow Community College in Leicester are in the former civil court to reopen the case of Daniel Diggle. The retrials are as accurate as records can make them - Daniel Diggle really was tried here in 1812. Jenny Gilbert, who manages the crime reduction programmes, says: "Often the trials were very corrupt. A lot of it was scapegoating, making examples of people to satisfy the public."

Daniel Diggle, aged 21, worked in the city's lace industry, but was sacked when knitting machines were introduced. After his former boss, George Kerry, was attacked and shot by intruders, he was arrested, tried and hanged.

However, more than a hint of bribery tainted the chief witness, who was one of the defendant's supposed co-conspirators. Other witnesses included some of the country's most senior military figures, who didn't testify on the facts of the case, but on the damage the Luddite insurrection was allegedly causing by drawing soldiers away from the war against France.

Furthermore, as only the rich could vote, the judge, jury and victim all moved in the same social circles. Or as one member of today's authentically rowdy gallery spits: "You don't know what it's like to be poor, you toffs".

Trials in 1812 were public entertainment and Judgemeadow students are quick to get into the spirit. The judge and barristers speak largely from a script, but witnesses must improvise their answers based on a sheet of facts about their character. Playing Justice Graham, Sanjay, aged 14, presides with stony-faced pomposity, and cuts mercilessly across any potentially fruitful line of questioning from the defence. "It's got the smell, it's got the wood panelling, it's got everything," he says of the courtroom, and suddenly starts contemplating a career in law.

Dexter, also aged 14, is a ferocious prosecutor and says his ambition is already to be a barrister. He has no sympathy for Daniel Diggle. "I wanted to see him go down. In real life I know he did it."

Indeed, the case may be almost 200 years old, but it's rich with contemporary arguments about computerisation, globalisation and the acceptable limits of protest. It also raises very modern questions about show trials, justice, human rights, and the way cases can be prompted or swayed by wider debate.

Hilary Lucas, the centre's education officer, says: "We're trying to offer an opportunity to take an active role in citizenship. These can be very dry topics in the classroom - it takes this kind of setting for students to appreciate what they really mean."

In court the jury is reaching its verdict. Daniel Diggle is found guilty of criminal damage, but not guilty of attempted murder, and receives six months' community service. In 1812, the real Daniel Diggle was taken below and later hanged in the exercise yard, where the walls are still scarred with names etched by condemned men.

For details about full-day programmes (pound;6 per pupil) and half-day sessions (pound;3.50 per pupil) involving mock trials and other activities contact the NCCLTel:0115 952 0555

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