Eyewitnesses testify to success of a new courtroom drama

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Aberdeenshire adapts the Citizenship Foundation's National Mock Trials into a local competition

Some of the wigs seem more Marie Antoinette than Rumpole of the Bailey, but there is no mistaking the sombre mood of the courtroom.

This is the first Aberdeenshire Schools Mock Trial Competition staged by the local authority in partnership with the Citizenship Foundation.

The handcuffs are real and so are the sheriffs on the bench, but the advocates, lawyers, accused and juries are all teenagers who will be back at school on Monday morning.

Court Six at Aberdeen Sheriff Court would do Laurence Llewelyn Bowen proud - a wonderful confection of pink and gold with ornate high ceilings and opulent lighting.

The splendour of their surroundings both intimidates and inspires the pupils. They have watched a few courtroom dramas and one or two pupil advocates perfectly nail that hint of supercilious confidence.

Pupils have had guidance from some of the North East's top criminal lawyers, who have given up a Saturday off to watch their proteges from the public benches. They are also hoping their students will win - it may be fun and educational, but the killer instinct runs deep.

As in all good courtroom dramas, there are moments of comedy - one pupil is briefly overwhelmed with laughter as she gives her evidence from the witness box. But the sheriffs are on best behaviour - avuncular and kindly, no grouchy reprimands today.

Eight schools are up against each other across four courtrooms in the Sheriff Court and nearby High Court. They take turns of prosecuting and defending and switch roles, sometimes playing an advocate and then the accused or a juror.

The law itself is on trial today. Some of these students are considering legal careers, so a boring hour in court and that application to study law will be binned in favour of medicine or music.

William Murphy, 17, from Inverurie Academy may become a law student. "I am still deciding at the moment but I am quite enjoying it today, so I might be interested. I think it's the feel of the courtroom - it's quite dramatic," he whispers, during a break in proceedings.

William thinks the austerity of the surroundings is also a deterrent. "It would certainly stop people wanting to commit a crime if they came here. I wouldn't want to be in the accused box," he laughs.

Modern studies teacher Gregor Merson, from Meldrum Academy, helped develop this event and says his school's lawyer-mentor, Ross Taggart, gave pupils great guidance. "After an afternoon with him, they came out with a lot more confidence in their ability. They had seen the courts and he had arranged for them to see a murder trial take place as well."

Resplendent in his silver wig with ponytail, Liam King is in sixth year at Inverurie Academy. "Some kind gentleman gave me this party wig. I think there weren't any others left," says Liam, second defence advocate in a case of vandalism.

Fifteen-year old Kerry Duncan from the Gordon Schools, Huntly has been a juror in another courtroom. "I thought this would be quite interesting because we take modern studies at school and we have just done the crime and law unit, so I thought it would be good to come along. I am interested in law, but I wouldn't say I wanted to be a lawyer," says Kerry.

Her school has taken part in the Bar National Mock Trial Competition on which this is modelled, so they made the training DVD at Banff Sheriff Court to show court procedures to newcomers. Kerry's modern studies teacher, Tracy Booth, says: "They learn such a huge range of different skills - real communication skills, analytical skills, thinking on their feet and having to listen carefully."

Verdicts delivered

This is a new venture for legal eagles in the North East - and their verdict on its success seems to be unanimously positive.

One of the four sheriffs judging the competition, Alasdair MacFadyen says he was impressed with youngsters' efforts: "I think it's fantastic."

Criminal defence lawyer Tony Burgess was mentor to the team from the Gordon Schools, Huntly. "We have given them guidance on how the court itself works. We were told we weren't to become involved in the nuts and bolts of the case," he says.

The qualities a good lawyer needs are, he adds, "the ability to speak clearly, the ability to present an argument logically and advocacy skills - just to be able to speak to people".

The lawyer mentor to Meldrum Academy, Ross Taggart, thinks the students did very well: "It's quite intimidating at first, but after they got going, they got a feel for it."

Competitors require certain attributes - "in this sort of thing, somebody with intelligence and confidence and who likes the sound of their own voice," he smiles.

The eight schools that took part were Ellon, Banchory, Inverurie, Mackie, Mearns, Meldrum and Turriff academies and Gordon Schools in Huntly, with Ellon Academy and Gordon winning through to the final. Gordon Schools were the winners.

Several Aberdeenshire schools have taken part in the national competition, but costs are considerable and places limited. The competition co- ordinator, Andrew Richie, says feedback from schools favoured a local event, modelled on the national one.

"The difficulty our schools have is that the Citizenship Foundation's mock trials are a fantastic experience and that's what's being replicated here, but the cost involved was prohibitive."

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