Witnessing the Future of the Bar: A Mock Trial at Fulford School, York

January 29, 2021

By Charlotte Noddings (Common Law Pupil)

There is currently a concerted effort by many at the Bar to increase the diversity of people turning their hand to the profession. Ideally, barristers should be as diverse as those they represent. Improvements have been made. The BSB reported in January 2020 that women now constituted 38% of the Bar. The numbers of BAME barristers had also increased to 13.6%[1]. Although these figures denote progress, it cannot be disputed that there is still far to go. Indeed, many consider that progress has stagnated in relation to BAME issues.

One known issue is the lack of opportunity to experience the profession as a young person. Young people often possess the attributes required to succeed at the Bar: determination in the face of injustice, resilience and versatility, to name a few. However, if they are not introduced to the profession at an early stage, it could mean few ever realise their potential as a barrister. This was a problem I encountered. As an A-Level student, I had no idea the gilded doors of the Bar could be open to someone of my background, or even that the profession existed.

Aware of this (all too common) problem, Nick Johnson QC has devised an outreach programme and a mock trial competition for state school educated A-Level students.

The first competition recently took place at Fulford School, a comprehensive school on the edge of York. Set across three sessions, the contest was attended by 30 A-Level students. They were presented with an imaginary criminal case on which the mock trial would be based. For the first two sessions, Nick and I gave a workshop on advocacy skills and explained our own routes to the Bar, offering advice on joining the profession, both of us having come from a state school background with no family or contacts in the legal professions. The students grappled with the issues of the case before being given a week to prepare their advocacy in two teams (prosecution and defence) before the final session, the trial itself.

15 advocacy parts became 20 as more students volunteered for speaking roles. To give them as close to a criminal trial experience as we could, the school hall was transformed into a crown court, with Nick presiding as the judge and I as his clerk. Students not wanting to be advocates formed the jury and acted as the witnesses.

The trial was a resounding success. Key highlights included some opportunistic closing speeches during cross-examination, one student giving an unprepared yet successful cross-examination due to a mix up in roles, and multiple responses by both teams on a legal argument. Whilst not all would have been sanctioned in a real criminal trial, it demonstrated the enthusiasm the students had for their case.

After a short deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict by majority. Due to the high standard of the advocacy, Nick and I couldn’t pick just one winner and instead shared the prize between five of the students. Each of them will now have the opportunity to do some work shadowing at Exchange Chambers with a practitioner, followed by further mentoring opportunities, should the students wish to develop their interest.

There is a great deal more to be done to increase the diversity of the Bar and these efforts cannot just be concentrated at an entry level. However, competitions such as these are one positive step to ensure the profession has a bright and inclusive future. We look forward to further state school visits in the future.

[1] Bar Standards Board. 2020. “Diversity at The Bar 2019.”