Emotional triumph for Northern Irish state school in Bar National Mock Trial at the Old Bailey

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By Katie King on

Citizenship Foundation competition now in its 25th year, and is still fierce in its combat against the bar’s social mobility problem

Citizenship Foundation

A team of elated Ballymoney students have proved victorious in their fourth stab at the bar mock trial crown.

Seeing off a total of 208 schools in regional heats and the grand final in London, the team from Dalriada School (pictured above) is now the proud and worthy winner of the Citizenship Foundation’s 25th annual bar mock trial.

Pioneered by registered charity the Citizenship Foundation, the mock trial is a chance for state school students across the UK to don a wig and gown and experience the cut and thrust of advocacy in a realistic criminal trial. Eighteen schools from all over the country — including Glasgow, Cardiff, Leeds and Oxford — made it to the national finals, held at the Old Bailey on Saturday.

The schools prepped and performed in a criminal trial of two fictional cases, one about a stolen coffee cup and another about a young defendant found in possession of a bag of cannabis, among other things.

After three tense semi-final rounds heard in front of 12 professional judges and advocates — including senior judges Mrs Justice Thirlwall DBE and Mrs Justice McGowan, and the likes of Doughty Street big shot Mark Mulholland QC — the competition was whittled down to two teams: Wilmslow High School from Cheshire, and Dalriada School from Ballymoney.

Courtroom 1, packed out with spectators, was the venue for the grand final. Both groups managed to hold their nerve, with prosecution, defence, witnesses, clerk and jury alike managing to deliver a stellar performance.

Watching from the sidelines, I was struck by the authenticity of the performance. Both sides were eloquent and believable, rarely if at all glancing down at notes or fumbling their lines.

Similarly impressed was one of the four judges observing the final showdown — John Cooper QC of 25 Bedford Row. The well-known silk told me he thought the students looked more like barristers than they did school-kids.

Citizenship Foundation

The visual authenticity of the trial doubtless helped: the costumes, the placement of the actors, the swearing on oath — a spectator would be forgiven for thinking they were watching the real deal. Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, chairman of the Bar Council, agreed, commenting that holding the competition in a real court with real judges adds an element of solemnity to the event, and makes the whole thing feel very real.

Jury verdict returned and a schmooze around the great hall later, it was time to announce the winner. And it was the lucky students from Dalriada School that came out of top, to be presented with the prestigious prize by criminal barrister and daytime TV judge Robert Rinder (pictured with Legal Cheek’s Katie King below).

Along with all the spectators I spoke to, the 2 Hare Court barrister had nothing but praise for the students and the Citizenship Foundation. The advocate, himself from humble beginnings, told Legal Cheek:

The programme is really important for two main reasons. It’s important because it gives people an indication as to whether the bar is for them. Secondly, it gives the students a sense of how important advocacy is, because it really is a learned skill.

The usefulness and value of this programme wasn’t far from the lips of almost everyone I spoke to, largely because it taps into a wider problem of contemporary significance.

Despite a stream of pro-diversity initiatives, a lack of barristers from non-traditional backgrounds is still very much the elephant in the room. In the wake of research revealing that top lawyers are 10 times more likely to be privately educated than anyone else, last week a new report exploring social mobility at the bar was published — and it made for uncomfortable reading. The PhD paper exposed a shocking truth: aspiring barristers from underrepresented backgrounds still face “serious challenges” in trying to access the profession, such as financial constraints and discouragement from peers.

That’s why charities like the Citizenship Foundation are such an important resource for aspiring barristers. Just have a read of Legal Cheek’s interview with Sophia Hurst, former bar mock trial participant turned pupil commercial barrister. And it was good to hear Rinder when he told me that he had handed out mini-pupillages to three of the winners from last year’s competition — and that they were all “brilliant”.

But it’s not all about wannabe lawyers. Regardless of future career path, the Citizenship Foundation bar mock trial has an intrinsic educational value, and helps develop skills above and beyond in-court advocacy. Kenneth Campbell QC explained:

The scheme is not just about advocacy. The kids get the chance to play all sorts of different roles, and this helps them understand that there are lots of people needed to make the justice system work.

Doerries agreed, telling Legal Cheek:

Obviously we hope many of the students that take part in the programme take an interest in studying law and going on become barristers, but the scheme is so much more than that. The experience helps them understand how the justice system works. The students learn how to be polite in disagreement, and it helps develop their negotiation skills.

Thankfully, the students agree. Participants from Chelmsford High School for Girls told me that the programme was worth the hefty time commitment because of the confidence it had instilled in them and the skills it’d helped them build and develop.

It’s a clear victory for all involved, no one more so than the proud teachers and students from the winning school. This was their fourth go at the national final, and they were absolutely delighted to win.

Moments after their emotional win, one of the Ballymoney students told me that — coming from a smaller school — she didn’t think they were in any chance at all. It felt, she told me, “surreal” for all their hard work to be recognised.

Hats off, and here’s to next year’s competition.