The Bar Mock Trial Competition helps young people to understand how the law touches every aspect of their lives. It is the largest and longest-running of its kind, with hundreds of schools from around the UK competing in real courthouses.
Supported by judges and practising barristers, thousands of students aged 15-18 take on the main roles found in a criminal trial, such as prosecutor, defendant and witness, in cases specially written by legal experts.
Many of the young people go on to pursue careers in the legal sector including Stuart Coleman, who first participated in 2013. He is now on his way to being a barrister in Scotland. In this blog, he recounts his story and offers advice to future competitors and team organisers.
Before I participated in the Mock Trial Competition, I did not really have anything more than a vague understanding of how the justice system operated. Though I had seen footage of trials in TV dramas, I did not understand how courts actually operated in detail and the nuance of the jobs that judges and lawyers do. In particular, I learned a lot about the procedure of how a court trial takes place, rules of evidence, and how lawyers question witnesses.
The experience developed my public speaking skills significantly. Previously, I had some experience public speaking at high school but being an advocate really developed my abilities in terms of using rhetoric and pathos. Moreover, I became far more confident in my ability to think on my feet. Whether as a witness or an advocate, the mock trials required me to be able to adapt quickly to changing situations and solve problems in the moment.
I was excited to perform in front of judges and barristers in real courts. This element of the competition raised the stakes a lot. Having your abilities judged by real legal professionals certainly makes the evaluation of your performance mean much more, and the whole experience more “real”. It also made the idea of law and the legal profession much more accessible. I was often surprised by how “normal” the judges and advocates were.
Representing with pride
I was a witness within my school’s team during my fourth year at school. During my fifth and sixth years, I was an advocate. It felt fantastic to represent my school. Since my school had a history of strong performance in the Mock Trial Competition, there was big sense of achievement in being good enough, firstly, to make the team, and secondly, in my sixth year, having a leadership role within the team. Finally, when we won the Scottish Regional Heat, heading to the UK Final there was a huge sense of pride in not only representing your school but, in turn, representing Scotland.
My happiest memory of the competition would be winning the 2015 Scottish Regional Heat of the Mock Trial Competition at the High Court in Glasgow. My school had previously won the 2013 and 2014 editions, but I had been involved in the team in more minor roles. However, in 2015, I was one of the more senior members of the team and, resultantly, had more responsibilities. So, the win was particularly special – and also came with a huge sense of relief in not being the cohort that ended my school’s winning streak!
“There was a huge sense of pride in not only representing your school but, in turn, representing Scotland.”
Advice for students
For any participant, whether a witness or an advocate, you need to be thoroughly prepared. As well as making you perform better, this will also give you the confidence in your abilities needed to be successful in the mock trial. For witnesses, the other piece of advice I would give is not to be afraid to disagree with the opposing team’s advocate in cross examination. Witnesses should feel free to be difficult and not comply with what the opposing advocate is suggesting; and should be actively trying to knock the questioner off balance. For advocates, have the confidence to improvise and react to the case as it unfolds in court, not just how you have prepared for it to unfold. This is what gets top marks from judges.
Advice for teachers
My biggest piece of advice for a teacher would be to stick with it. The teacher who ran our mock trial team said that, despite the success our team had later on, when the school first entered teams, they fared poorly. There were simply some things that could only be known with experience. Furthermore, a big part of our team’s success was having members of the team who were competing in the competition for their second or third time who could advise newer members.
Secondly, running a successful team is a lot of work! The teacher at my school who ran our team put in a huge amount of time and effort – including both during lunch breaks and after school – into the team. This was absolutely critical to our success.
“Without the Bar Mock Trial Competition, I would not have studied law.”
Without the Bar Mock Trial Competition, I would not have studied law. Before joining my school’s team, I only had a vague and abstract understanding of the law and justice system. Through Mock Trials, I acquired a concrete understanding of both. The practical nature of mock trials brought the topic of law to life; rather than discussing or analysing law, the competition allows you to “be” a lawyer. This countered the notion of law being a very dry subject.
Moreover, having had some success in mock trials, the experience gave the confidence I could be successful in university level legal study. Even more specifically, the trials taught me that I am an able public speaker and debater, especially in the legal setting. This has inspired my future careers ambitions. I want to be an advocate at the Scottish Bar.
At the same time, I would emphasise that Mock Trials are something for those who are not legally inclined. My team was full of people who have gone on to work in or study everything from business, to psychology, to geology – all enjoyed the experience and felt they gained a lot from it. Whether in terms of problem solving or communication skills, the Mock Trial Competitions offer the opportunity to develop skills that are useful in all fields.
Stuart is a Scots Law graduate from Edinburgh University, who is now completing the Bachelor of Civil Law degree at St Cross College, Oxford. While at Edinburgh, he received the Lord President Cooper Prize for ranking first overall in his year and was a founding member of the Edinburgh University Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Society.