25 years of the Magistrates’ Mock Trial Competition: What does it mean to be an ‘active citizen’?

“Today is all about using your voice; I would like you to think about the ongoing need for powerful voices beyond today.” – Katherine Sirrell, Young Magistrate and Lawyer at the Government Legal Department

On Saturday 15th June, 16 Schools across the UK assembled at the spectacular Royal Courts of Justice to battle it out to be crowned National Champions of the 2019 Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial Competition. Luke Rigg, of the Young Magistrates’ Steering Group, pointed out all the young people that took part in the competition were active citizens. But what does it mean to be an active citizen in the first place?

Cautious footsteps tread the majestic, marble floors of the Main Hall. As young people, aged 12 to 14, start to fill the hall, the chatter, excitement, nerves and laughter reverberates around the 137 year old building. Teachers offer last minute reassurance; friends show support. ‘You’ll be fine; you were great when we rehearsed!’ The mounting excitement builds, this is a competition after all and everyone wants to win – eyes on the prize, you’ve made it this far!

It is in this context that the magnitude of what the students were about to do at the Royal Courts of Justice dawned on me. At the age of 12, I would have had my nose in a book, preferring the company of fictional characters rather than real people. Yet here are 240 young people, preparing to prosecute, defend, act as witnesses, and exercise their reasoning skills to decide whether the accused is guilty or not. This is no easy task. Not only did they make it look easy but had fun doing so. John Bache, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, commended the public speaking skills and the enthusiasm that was shown on the day.

However, being an active citizen is not just about taking part, it’s about making a difference. Katherine Sirrel emphasised the need to use their voices and influence society’s ideas. Young people are often portrayed as passive, oblivious, preferring the instant gratification of social media than real life interactions. But here are a group of young people, who are not only facing the realities of the justice system head on and immersing themselves in the role but are challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be young in the 21st century.

Each and every team that took part in the competition demonstrated the whole range of attributes needed in order to be an active citizen. Shaun Wallace, Barrister and ‘Legal Eagle’ of The Chase on ITV, reminded them that the future is theirs for the taking and they have shown commitment, determination and focus in getting this far in the competition. Glenthorne High School, demonstrated not only determination in coming 2nd place in a national competition but also modesty and good sportsmanship by congratulating the winners before collecting their trophy. At trial, Ranelagh School, winners two years running, demonstrated commitment, dedication and passion. They delivered their arguments with such intensity that spectators were left questioning whether they were school students or lawyers in disguise.

The Ecclesbourne School, travelling from Derby in the morning of the competition, were delayed by faulty trains. They arrived and got stuck into the competition, not letting their obstacles faze them. They demonstrated resilience and perseverance in the face of difficulties. St Dominic’s School, who had travelled from Northern Ireland, when told the news about their first round competitors being delayed were understanding, empathetic and patient.

Young Citizens trustee, John Cooper QC, encouraged the young people to ‘breathe deeply the air’ as they were in the Temple of Justice. The active young citizens of tomorrow, assembled at the Royal Courts of Justice, breathed deeply the air that day. They taught us what it means to be an active citizen in today’s society. We would do well to follow their lead and learn. I feel a little more confident in the state of the future knowing that they will become the leaders of tomorrow.

Register your interest below to take part in next year’s competition.