Basic legal education at School

In 2005 I took part in the National Bar Mock Trial Competition.  This was a nationwide competition run by the Citizenship Foundation with assistance from the Bar in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as the respective court services.  In November 2005 I spent one Saturday at the High Court of Justiciary building in Glasgow prosecuting and defending a fictional case in the Scottish Heats of the competition.  While we never made the final in London it was great fun and really cemented for me that I wanted to go into the Law.

The Citizenship Foundation has the following to say about the competition on its website:

The Bar National Mock Trial Competition gives young people an exciting and innovative insight into the workings of the legal system. Now in its 20th successful year, it involves over 2,000 students, 300 barristers/advocates and 90 judges from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Taking part in the competition gave me a real insight into the workings of our criminal legal system.  We were coached in how to appear in the Court, we wore wigs and gowns kindly brought along by the supporting Advocates and had some of the country’s top QCs and Sheriffs giving up their Saturday to preside over the cases.  The regional final was presided over by Lord Hodge.  Everyone from the Court services staff to Senators of the College of Justice were involved in helping to give us an “exciting and innovative insight into the workings of the legal system.”

Competitions like this are fantastic, but they really are limited in what they can do to educate people.  The numbers of people who can take part are limited to somewhere in the region of 140 pupils per year for the whole of Scotland.

The legal system is vitally important in our lives.  It places involuntary obligations upon us, it can remove our freedom and our liberty, it can be used as redress when people have wronged us and be used to help prevent wrongs from occurring in the first place.  Why then, is it that the legal system is almost non-existent in our education system in Scotland.  Why do we not get at least basic legal education looking at matters of Human Rights, Criminal and Civil wrongs, how it all links together and how we as citizens can use it?

In England and Wales some students can elect to sit an A-level in Law which can help to give them an understanding of the legal system and how it affects them.  That’s all very good, but again the numbers of people who this benefits is limited to the number of students who elect to study such a course, which is not available at all educational establishments in the country.

Why do we not have something a little more universal?  Why not build it into Personal, Social and Health Education or into the 5-14 Modern Studies syllabus, therefore, ensuring that every pupil in Scotland benefits from  learning basic information about our legal system.  I’m not necessarily suggesting anything particularly complex, but rather topics such as the Human Rights Act, the make-up of the legal system (i.e. what fits in where), the difference between civil and criminal matters, how Scots Law fits in with the rest of the United Kingdom and Internationally and so on.

I just feel that it is tragic that people leave school with no real understanding of the very system that governs almost every aspect of their daily lives and really do think it is time that some basic legal education is compulsory in Scottish schools before the age at which a child can leave full time education.

I would love to read what you, my readers, have to say on this subject and would encourage you to get in touch by E-mail or post your comments in the comments section below.

3 thoughts on “Basic legal education at School

  1. I competed in a similar programme when I was in high school in the US and it was an excellent opportunity. Our cases were civil, rather than criminal. I learned a lot about court procedure, rules of evidence and what being a litigator is really about.

    While I agree that mock trial competitions can only reach a certain number of students, I feel like the number of 140 is unnecessarily pessimistic. The programme I competed in was sponsored by the Martyland State Bar Association. Maryland is similar in population to Scotland and, sccording to the competition’s website ( 130 schools are currently registered to compete. The website says that each team must comprise 8-12 students, so that’s at least 1,000 students!

    There’s a general lack of political education in the Scottish curriculum. Years ago I knew one of the people who had helped design the initial modern studies curriculum in the 1970’s. He said there was a general feeling at the time in Scotland that any study of politics/government was part of a communist plot and should be discouraged. So that’s why they wound up with such an anodyne curriculum.

    Again, when I was in school in Maryland there was a mandatory semester of “national, state and local government”. This covered the legal system — not in any great depth, but we learned about the different types of courts and a bit about procedures. I had a great teacher for this and he had us do a mock trial in class as well as a mock presidential election and other creative ways of learning.

    Most people in Britain seem to get any knowledge of the legal system from television and movies. Which means that they easily confuse the American and British legal systems and think everything is a lot more dramatic than it actually is. I agree that there should be a lot more legal education in schools than there is currently, but education is such a political hot potato, which means that it will be difficult to get any traction on this sort of change.

    1. Interesting and thanks for your comments.

      There is no such thing as a British legal system as the systems between the constituent parts of the UK are quite different. Up here people have been exposed to English Criminal rules and law through TV programmes (fictional and documentary) when in fact the Scottish system is very different to that in England.

      US legal shows really do misinform people. Between those and English shows people talk about rights that simply do not exist in Scotland.

      Having studied Modern Studies right up until Advanced Higher level (sat AH exam in 2006) the curriculum has improved considerably. That might be partly down to the Scottish Parliament taking responsibility for education in Scotland and typically the Governments in Scotland being slightly more to the left than the UK Parliament (which is elected predominantly by the more conservative England).

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