…or why I’m particularly excited about Street Law.
I’ve complained twice in the last month that understanding of the law outside of the profession is, generally, quite poor. Even our own government makes mistakes that are simple to avoid (and for some, their approach to law-making leave a lot to be desired). I’ve also said that it is up to law students and lawyers to improve this. This weekend, I took action.
On Saturday morning I went to go to the Law Society of Scotland’s (LSOS’s) Offices in Edinburgh. My blog hadn’t gotten me in trouble (yet), and it wasn’t about court reform. I had volunteered, along with more than 50 other Law students from across Scotland, to take part in a weekend-long training session. Two American folks had come over to teach the bunch of us about something that has existed in The States for about 40 years, but only arrived on our shores about 4 months ago: Street Law.
Street Law is about helping young people engage with the law. It’s not about cases or statutes; it’s about concepts and principles. It was founded in the 1970’s in Georgetown, DC, essentially as a way of teaching kids about their rights. But since then it has grown and expanded to look at all aspects of the law and is taught to a whole range of people, including prisoners and community groups.
Instead of ‘death by PowerPoint’, lists of cases to memorise and statutes to remember, Street Law focuses on the bigger picture. The aim of the Scottish Scheme, which was trialled last last year, is to teach school pupils (S3/S4) about the law in a way they would find engaging, interesting and most of all exciting. The central aim is that people are able to face the law on their own terms and in a way they understand. In essence, it’s about making the law relevant to those learning it.
Imagine, for example, going into a school in Castlemilk or Drumchapel. As much as I love talking about the UK Constitution, it’s unlikely to be a hot topic in the playground. The fact that Wee Jimmy got stopped by the police last week but Jimmy didn’t know what to do is probably a lot more interesting, so that is what we talk about, and our devolution debates have to wait for another time. And even then, you don’t go on about the procedural changes the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2005 introduced, but what they mean in real life. You ask whether the Police should be able to stop anyone for any reason, or if limits should be placed on them. If so – what are they? And from there you can even ask whether they think an individual’s freedom more important than societal safety? From wee Jimmy’s unfortunate incident you can explore a national scandal…and they might just listen.
The hope of LSoS is that, by getting the law into schools, with the backing of Head Teachers and Classroom workers, it won’t seem so scary and remote. During the weekend, we got to hear from those already delivering Street Law lessons in Scotland and according to them it has been a storming success. Under the pretence of aliens arriving from some distant planet, they had kids deciding which Human Rights they needed to be safe, and how they did it. School pupils have been thinking about whether keeping the wrong change from a shop should be a crime, and whether it should be more or less of a crime than selling drugs – and why. Things that would never even cross their minds otherwise are, all of a sudden, accessible because they’re being asked to come up with an answer – not being asked what the answer is.
That is the true strength of Street Laws approach, and why its such an exciting idea – the learners are at the heart of everything that happens. One of the most interesting things from the whole weekend was ‘The Michael Morton Experiment’. A crime scene was set up in the room. A note was left on the wall. Evidence and information was presented and, in groups, the participants had to try and piece together what had happened. Had Michael, murdered his wife(Christine), or had someone else done it? Was the fact he seemed to show no remorse over his wife’s death the reaction of a man in shock – or a sign of a cold-hearted killer? When all these questions had been considered, people were paired off, and 1 acted and a Prosecutor of, and the other as a Defender for, Michael Morton in a plea negotiation. The evidence was damning, but not water-tight. Was a deal worth it? Was there still reasonable doubt? Is it worth going to trial even though, if found guilty, Michael Morton would be executed?
When us law students did this on Saturday Afternoon, a fair number of the participants thought that Michael Morton was guilty. About 90% came to a bargain that involved some amount of jail-time for the man. It was only after all of this that it was revealed that this was not actually an experiment. It was based on a real case, where Michael spent 25 years in prison for killing his wife. On 19th December 2011, Michael Morton was found innocent. He had been convicted based on incomplete evidence and untruthful prosecutors.
What the defenders in the room didn’t know was that the prosecutors had been given 4 additional pieces of evidence. All of these categorically exonerated Michael Morton, but the prosecutors didn’t have to tell the defenders about them i.e. there was no duty to disclose. what does the prosecutor go for: the win, or the right answer?
When this is used in a school, the whole concept of what ‘justice’ is exploded wide open. Not because a teacher stood in front of the class with a jurisprudence textbook, but because the learners stepped inside the shoes of real lawyers. They examined the evidence. They drew the conclusions. They had to decide what to do in the negotiation. They had to decide if being right or being successful was more important to them. Decisions solicitors and advocates have to make every day were instead being made by them, and suddenly don’t seems do remote or distant.
If we are serious about engaging people in the law (and by extension politics), Street Law is absolutely the best way to start. By using examples the school children can relate to (such as stop-and-search), simple examples (such as aliens stealing our Human Rights) and fun, interactive teaching methods (like ‘The Michael Morton Experiment’ does), “The Law” can slowly become just “the law”. Not some far off concept that only people in wigs and silly gowns can understand, but something that affects everybody.
In essence, Street Law democratises law and can help play a part in promoting fair access to justice in Scotland. We encourage greater understanding of what the law is and what it means, so in future when Tory MP’s make nonsensical statements about the Human Rights Act, its not just the lawyers on twitter who ridicule him for it, but non-lawyers get why he’s wrong as well.
But more than that. Street Law helps to promote engaged, analytical and curious minds in the next generation, adn demystifies the idea of ‘being a lawyer’. The legal profession is still seen as an old boys’ club where Legal Dynasties reign and the top lawyers are overwhelmingly rich, white men. It is not an expanding circle, and not something for the wee kid in Drumchapel. We have to change this perception.
Street Law is our chance to do so.