Review

Students shine at Supreme Court social mobility event — despite taking harsh criticism from Court of Appeal judge

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Judges prove just how out of touch they are, again

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Three lucky students had the once in a lifetime chance to practice their advocacy skills in front of two of the country’s top judges last Thursday — and it’s safe to say that judges have very high standards.

This was all part of the Supreme Court Judgment Review, a project hosted by social mobility charity Big Voice London — the same guys that brought us the Model Law Commission.

The whole point of the programme was to give the 35 student participants, all state school educated, the chance to think analytically about the law. After a two hour workshop, the A-level students were tasked with writing a 1,200 word report on whether they agreed with the outcome of one of three recent Supreme Court decisions: Evans, Rhodes and Roberts.

It goes without saying that these are hardly run of the mill cases. Speaking to Victoria Anderson — the charity’s director — during the event, even she admitted that the judgments, especially in the Evans case, are “really, really complex”, and she was impressed that the students were able to grapple with these meaty legal issues — as was I.

The best entrants — as picked by Anderson and co — had their chance to play barrister, and present their arguments to a packed out courtroom in none other than the Supreme Court. Lord Justice Vos — a Court of Appeal judge — and Mrs Justice Asplin — a High Court judge — were tasked with the unenviable job of picking a winner.

It’s difficult to do anything but commend the finalists — Kyieron Clarke, Charlotte Llewellyn and Andrew Wolckenhaar — who all had a good stab at incredibly difficult case law, and were very brave to put their legal knowledge and advocacy skills out on the table for two of the profession’s biggest names to see.

That’s why it came as a surprise to me that the trio were given such a grilling by Vos and Asplin after their presentations. All three were faced with pretty challenging, off the cuff questions about their respective cases.

Speaking to the first presenter, Andrew, after the event, he told me that the questions came as a total surprise. I was particularly taken aback that at the end of Charlotte’s presentation — which was heavily focused around the Article 10 issues raised by the case of Rhodes — Vos questioned her about the case’s Article 8 implications. If my 16 year-old self were put on the spot in this way I would have had no idea what Article 8 was.

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All three did incredibly well to hold their nerve, but in the end it was Kyieron that stole the show. A young, black teenager himself, Kyieron drew on anecdotal evidence from his personal experiences of stop and search policy when discussing the human rights implications of the Roberts decision. Maybe this is frowned upon in legal practice — as Vos was all too quick to point out — but from a viewer’s perspective it made his argument much easier to listen to and much more persuasive.

He rightly won, but when it came to announcing this, the judges went about it in — what I thought was — the most gut-churning, cringiest way possible.

Vos and Asplin decided to score each presentation publically out of 10 based on four categories — legal accuracy, cogency, written presentation and oral presentation — giving each finalist an overall score out of 40.

And they didn’t go easy on them, even the winner. I jotted down phrases like “not brilliant”, “woolly” and “you didn’t handle that well”. Lowlights included a snarky remark about one student’s presenting style being “undesirable” and getting “boring very quickly”.

The highest mark scored was a nine, and that went to Kyieron for his cogency. He was then was told that his presentation was “the only one that packed a punch” — which I’m sure delighted the other two finalists. And though I’m not all too sure that he meant it in this way, Vos seemed to suggest that Charlotte and Andrew had taken the easy way out by agreeing with the Supreme Court, and made an interesting comment about him — as a Court of Appeal judge — liking it when people take aim at the Supreme Court.

Far more resilient than I was at their age, the finalists seemed to brush off the criticism and were in good spirits after the event. Kyieron — the overall winner with a score of 30 — told me that he’d only had limited time to prepare his presentation because of illness and exams, and that he felt very nervous about the whole experience. The aspiring criminology undergrad was really surprised that he’d won, and was feeling chuffed about the new addition to his CV.

Speaking to the runners up, they were extremely positive about the whole thing too. Andrew, who came in third place, was particularly sturdy. When I asked if he regretted picking what me and Anderson thought was the toughest case, he told me that he had “no regrets”, and that he felt ready to grapple with tough legal problems in the future.

The achievements of these young, bright students shouldn’t be glossed over: they crafted their own legal arguments and put together a 10 minute long presentation, on legal issues even practising lawyers would struggle to understand — and I think Vos might have forgotten that. His unduly harsh comments could really have shaken up the finalists. But — at least from the impression I got — they all took it on the chin, and that’s testament to them and the brilliant Big Voice London team.

If Vos got anything at all right on that evening, it was when he said this:

There simply are not enough organisations out there doing work like this.