Verdict of the court

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
A mock trial competition for schools makes an excellent introduction to the magistrates' courts, says Sarah Farley.

Did Bobby genuinely believe that the fire surround had been discarded as rubbish? Had he planned to steal it or was he just helping tidy up while doing himself a favour? With murder cases on EastEnders given as their previous image of court proceedings, a visit to a real court provides thought-provoking experiences for students taking part in a Cambridgeshire heat of the magistrates' court mock trial competition.

Run by the Citizenship Foundation in partnership with the Magistrates'

Association, the competition offers a lively and challenging introduction to the legal system. Teams of 12 students from Years 8 and 9 take on the roles of magistrates, lawyers, court officials, witnesses and the defendant.

Each team takes part in two trials, defending, prosecuting and trying a specially written case. As well as being appropriate for citizenship lessons, the scheme can be applied successfully to drama, religious education and PSHE.

"Initially, the scheme is helpful in promoting an understanding of right and wrong. We have been developing our case through drama lessons," says Pauline Macleod, Year 9 tutor at Ailwyn School, Ramsey. "But it has also been valuable in encouraging the students to look at issues from different perspectives, not just going with their gut feeling but to show how to weigh an argument and actually have to base a decision on what has been proved."

At Peterborough magistrates' court, the Saturday morning trial of Bobby commences with the "magistrates" from each school being given a brief explanation on etiquette from real-life chairman of the bench, Marie Davenport. "Listen to what is being said in court, watch how people behave, make notes. When we go in the door, walk straight to your seat but wait until we are all ready to sit down. And for those going to the far side, mind your head on the wrought-iron crest on the wall," she advises.

"Court rise," says the usher, and we all stand. It may not be the Old Bailey, but there is definitely a ripple of tension. The magistrates sit imposingly on their bench above the court. The court clerk starts the case and the defence and prosecution solicitors take their turns.

"Did you not think it rather stupid to put a valuable fire surround in a tip of a garden?" says the strident defence solicitor. The witness (also the victim) acts well or is genuinely terrified.

Some of the students have previously visited a court as part of their research. "I thought it was interesting to compare statements and pick out the inconsistencies," says Emily Beal, from Sawtry College. Playing the part of a witness has given her insight into how a witness would feel: "I think it would be hard to give evidence and it would feel a real responsibility. What if the person was found guilty or innocent because of you making a mistake? But I think everyone should be a witness if necessary because it helps in getting at the truth."

The first trial found the defendant not guilty, but in the second the same magistrates found him guilty, giving the teachers more material for debate.

After a closely matched heat, Ailwyn School won through to the next round.

Almost all cases come before magistrates' courts at some stage, and these courts deal with 95 per cent of criminal cases. Peterborough, where the mock trial was held, was the court where the accused in the Soham murder case first appeared. In its mission to explain to the public just what happens in court, the Magistrates' Association runs a scheme whereby primary and secondary school students can hear a talk from a local magistrate and, for those older than 14, follow it up with a visit to court.

During a visit from two local magistrates, Year 8 students from John Mansfield School in Peterborough learn about the role of lay magistrates and how to become one. The magistrates discuss the differences between criminal, youth and family courts, and demonstrate how they arrive at a verdict. Then, using case examples, they discuss how they would sentence a shoplifter and a drunken driver. Teacher Janice Allen says the students particularly enjoy the sentencing exercises: "Their views on sentencing vary widely and it gives us plenty of opportunity to follow up in lessons with more discussion and role play."

For competition details contact the Citizenship Foundation, Ferroners House, Shaftesbury Place, London EC2Y 8AA. Tel: 0207 367 0500 Cost of entry is pound;25. For details of school visits contact Magistrates in the Community, The Magistrates' Association, 28 Fitzroy Square, London W1T 6DD.

Tel: 020 7387 2353.

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