Lord Kinclaven: Realistic court cases make learning fun

Lord Kinclaven
Lord Kinclaven

Lord Kinclaven shares insights from the MiniTrial legal education scheme, teaching thousands of Scottish pupils about the justice system.

Turn back the clock to 2001, when the book Paths to Justice Scotland was published. It was a survey which examined, among other things, the public’s perspective on access to justice, and I was particularly taken by one of its suggestions – that more needed to be done to promote legal education in schools.

It had to be taking the law to the schools, because it would have been impractical to have groups of students attending court – under-14s are not normally allowed, in any event – and I thought it might be an idea to get the youngsters involved by actually taking on the roles of the various people who feature in a trial.

I was still a practising QC at the time (Sandy Wylie QC), and the Faculty of Advocates agreed to help me take the idea forward, and MiniTrial was born. Our first mock trial was staged at Trinity Academy in Edinburgh in 2002, and down the years, thousands of pupils have, I hope, learned about the Scottish justice system and, importantly, learned about it in an enjoyable way.

The initiative centres around realistic court cases which can be conducted in the classroom or, with the co-operation of local courts, in a real courtroom. We have staged MiniTrials in sheriff courts in places like Kilmarnock, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayr, Paisley and Dundee, and it is such a bonus for the youngsters to feel they are ‘performing’ in the exact place where real lawyers and sheriffs conduct real trials on a daily basis. They also love visits to the cells!

We have developed a series of cases for MiniTrial. There is an assault case, a drug dealing case, and a particular favourite of primary pupils is HM Advocate v Goldilocks where a young woman is charged with malicious mischief. It has featured on BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action.

There is also a civil jury trial, based on the famous snail-in-the-bottle case and the landmark litigation of Donoghue v Stevenson which established the modern law of negligence internationally. Not surprisingly, as this case started with the purchase of a bottle of ginger beer in the Wellmeadow Café, Paisley, it proved popular when we staged MiniTrials in Paisley.

A trial usually takes little over an hour. All the major parts are played by the pupils themselves. In a criminal trial, that will be the prosecution and defence lawyers, the court officials, the witnesses, the jury (if there is one) and, of course, the accused.

MiniTrial materials can be downloaded for free and are comprehensive, yet simple and accurate. There is a network of volunteer lawyers, both solicitors and Advocates, who are often able to assist with preparations and to act as sheriff to provide further realism.

Other mock trials are available for schools – for example, the Faculty of Advocates supports the Bar Mock Trial Competition, an annual UK-wide event run by Young Citizens.

But where MiniTrial differs is that it has always been our philosophy that they should be non-competitive. There are no winners or losers. There is no pressure. We want MiniTrials to be fun, an enjoyable way to demystify the law and lawyers and to learn about what really happens in court.

The response we receive from participants is always an inspiration for us to keep going.

“It was really exciting, not only getting to be in the courtroom, but given a tour of the cells. Ten out of ten. Everyone should do this,” is typical of the comments we receive.

Another: “It was one of my best days in school…Thank you so much for helping me decide my job because I want to be a lawyer when I am older.”

And you can’t really say it any better than: “It was super duper mega fun!”

The time has come for me to hand over the MiniTrial baton. The website with all the materials and information has been taken over by a new MiniTrial Steering Group, with Lord Mulholland as Chair.

In 2017, I was overwhelmed to be awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours, for the MiniTrial work. I was delighted to dedicate the honour to the thousands of young people, teachers, lawyers and court staff who have worked together so enthusiastically and selflessly and without whom MiniTrial could never have become such a success. Thank you.

I would encourage anyone who would like to try a MiniTrial, or to assist as a volunteer, to visit the website or email minitrialsenquiries@gmail.com.

  • The Hon Lord Kinclaven OBE is a Senator of the College of Justice. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.