Home News Magistrates Mock Trials Regional Finals Held at Reading Crown Court

Magistrates Mock Trials Regional Finals Held at Reading Crown Court

by Neill Rhodes

What would have to happen to bring a Senior Appeals Court Judge, over 200 school children aged between 12 and 14 years of age and Volunteers and Teachers together On a Saturday morning.  All set in the imposing surroundings of Reading’s Crown Court?  Well on Saturday 13th May 2023 at Reading Crown Court the Regional Final of the Magistrates Mock Trials took place.  In the buzzing excitement of the Crown Court building and using all four of the Courtrooms, the atmosphere was electric.  So many excited young voices, in the usually quiet and more reserved corridors and stairs.

The Berkshire schools taking part had been narrowed down to a field of just six over the two heats held in the preceding months.  Refreshingly they were today joined by two schools from outside of Berkshire, for this, the Southern Regional Final.  Usually, the winning team would go through afterwards to the National Final, to be held in the High Courts of Justice in London.  This larger contest is organised by Young Citizens nationally.  However, this hasn’t yet fully recommenced after the global pandemic.  But Berkshire’s Magistrates Association were determined to keep engaged with the schools whom they work with and get them as far as possible. 

The schools that took part in 2023’s Southern Regional Finals were:

Emmbrook School, Wokingham (who went on to win)
Wycombe High School, High Wycombe (runners up this year)
The Holt School, Wokingham
Trinity School, Newbury, Berks
Charters School, Ascot
Glenthorne High School, Surrey
Kings Academy, Binfield, Berks
Upton Court Grammar School, Slough, Berks

Emmbrook School with Simon Muir, High Sheriff of Berkshire; and Cllr Caroline Smith, Mayor of Wokingham Borough

After being greeted in the entrance atrium of the very imposing Court building there was a briefing given of the set-up of the day.  The excited chatter dwindled for this and you could have heard a pin drop.  The anticipation of a unique kind of competition was in the air…

The ability to hold this event is entirely reliant on funds raised and donated.  Then organised by the Berkshire Branch of the Magistrates Association (a registered Charity) and as in the previous years there is sponsorship from His Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenant’s and past High Sheriff’s of the Royal County of Berkshire.  Whilst additional funding from Berkshire’s Freemasons ensured that there was food and drink on hand for all who took part this year. This being the third and final year of the funding the Freemasons are able to give to the Competition.  The sponsoring Lodge being Christopher Wren, meeting at Windsor.  In turn these funds were generously left to be used for Charitable and community purposes in a legacy from a past member Lelland Powell.  

The schools had all received details of the case they would be prosecuting and defending.  Then in the second part of the Final, they would swap over to argue the opposite way in that same case.  Team members from each school filled every role in the trial process.  From Magistrates (assisted by a genuine Magistrate sitting on the Bench with them) to the Lawyers, Court Ushers, the defendant and all of the witnesses.  Some schools had enlisted the help of experts to coach their school teams in the weeks leading up to the Final and the children really gained from this additional expert input.  All those involved giving freely of their time and knowledge.  In the courtrooms, the atmosphere was certainly different to the regular weekday activities that are the usual business conducted there.  There were parents and supporters lining the edges of the courtroom.  Children sitting in every spare space of the courtroom.  This reporter was left in awe at some of the students skills.  Who were clearly working at a level much higher than you would expect of those of their age group and peers.  A few times even the seasoned legal-experts present were seen to raise an eyebrow and I caught sight of a Crown Court Judge clenching their fists and grinning. Trying to appear composed, whilst delighted at how well the questioning and cross examination of witnesses and the defendant were conducted.  Tact and clarity being very much  evident.  Always courteous, but strong and professional where needed.  These children may have entered the competition shy and apprehensive, but once in place, they adopted their roles and gave their all.

Wycombe High School with Simon Muir, High Sheriff of Berkshire;

Once the teams had taken part in both of their trials the scores were collated.  Three volunteer magistrates were in each court and independently scoring everything that took place.  Even including the deliberations of the magistrates (three students from each school) and the qualified Magistrate who was leading the trial.  This would usually take place in total privacy.  Before the trial verdict was given, there was calm, followed by applause and real relief afterwards.  An explanation of the law in the case and the guide to sentencing in the event of being found guilty, was given.  Completing the circle of knowledge gained by those who took part.

A short break and everyone gathered in the atrium once for.  Before the results were announced, there were then well-earned thanks given to the Crown Court, its officials and staff for supporting the Trials with the use of their building and time.  Followed by some rousing words about the history of the Mock Trials Competition (it’s been running for 28 years in Berkshire and started by a Magistrate Eve North, who received the MBE for her work).  Even how some of the lawyers and Judges of today had started through participating in this same competition.  They told how it had sparked and lit a flame of curiosity, that grew into a real career for some of the past competitors.  The results and the cheers then filled the Court auditorium and the Prize trophies were given out.  Each child will also receive a certificate of having taken part in the days following the competition.  This reporter also managed to take some photographs of three of the competing school teams on the Court steps outside afterwards.

Lady Justice Andrews DBE was present, who has been an Appeal Court Judge since October 2020.  When asked why she personally support the Magistrates Court Mock Trials said, “I’ve had 30 years at the Bar, 10 years as a Kings Counsel (previously QC).  Then I sat in the High Court for 7 years, before becoming a Privy Councillor and an Appeal Court Judge.  I feel that for young people to understand the rule of law in their country this Competition just put simply; works.  For the children to see how the roles work together during the competition is invaluable and it promotes civic responsibility.”  Next she was asked what she would say to a school considering taking part for the first time?  Justice Andrews replied, “Go for it.  It’s fun, you’ll learn a lot.  You’ll pick up transferrable skills, effective communication is essential as a lawyer.  Clear objectives and clear language will assist you in life.  You may also spot a future ‘star’ who has no experience of law or the legal system.”  Lady Andrews then thanked the organisers and teachers for coaching the students and arranging the events and heats leading up to todays Regional Final.

Left to Right: William Hartley Russell MVO DL (former High Sheriff of Royal County of Berkshire), Alka Kharvanda (High Sheriff at the date photo was taken), Anthony Howlett-Bolton OBE Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire, Simon Muir

Also present and supporting what would be the winning Team, Emmbrook School from Wokingham, was Councillor Caroline Smith.  With at the time, of this competition, just five more days remaining holding the Office of Mayor of Wokingham Borough.  We asked her what, as Mayor, made this visit today different from some of her other civic duties?  She said, “Historically, my own daughter took part when she was at school.  When I got the invite to come, I jumped at it.  How important it is to learn about the Court system.  It also shows the benefits of having a really good barrister if you’re in a spot of bother.”  We asked her what benefit the Magistrates Mock Trials Competition might bring to a student taking part? She told me, “It’s all great experience for when they might choose to go on to university studies.  It will really be impressive on your UCAS application form.  Learning is one thing.  But the life experience this equips them with, helps you to acquire skills that are lifelong, such as debating and reasoning argument.”  This reporter couldn’t’ help but take the opportunity to ask what had got her muddiest or dirtiest during her year as Wokingham’s Borough Mayor?  Mayor Smith told of how she had been invited to attend a Hindu Holi Festival and it had poured with rain.  “Not only was I covered in vibrant colours, but as the event was held on a playing field, very mud caked as well.  Thankfully the official chain of Office was kept covered up with plastic on that occasion.  It was great fun though despite all the mud.”

For more information about the Young Citizens National Magistrates Mock Trials: https://smartlaw.org.uk/mock-trials/

For the Berkshire Magistrates Association and information for schools, students and parents about this Regional competition and how to enter: https://berkshiremocktrial.org.uk

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