Mock trials teach students about Hong Kong's legal system

Offering secondary school students court experience is a great way to teach them about our legal system - and the consequences of crime, writes Andrea Zavadszky

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 10:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 10:36am

Experiencing an event in real life always leaves a much deeper impression than simply hearing a story. For the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, offering a real-life court experience to secondary school students is a great way to impress upon them the consequences of crime and how the legal system works in our community.

The society also offers schools talks on crime prevention and students can listen to stories from former offenders, but lecturing teenagers usually doesn't work.

"If you just give them a talk, they shut their ears," says the society's chief executive Andy Ng Wang-tsang. "We explore all types of programmes to carry this message. Through the mock trial [competition], they can learn about crime prevention and the legal system in a more interesting way."

The competition develops many skills ... It also offers moral education
Andy Ng, Society of Rehabilitation and crime prevention 

The Mock Trial Competition brings teams of students into the courtroom, where, dressed in silks and before real judges and a jury made up of volunteers, they take part in the trial of a young person charged with a crime such as drug trafficking, blackmailing, an indecent act, fighting or stealing.

The topic and witness statements are provided by the society, and the students take on the roles of offenders, lawyers and witnesses.

"It requires an in-depth study of criminal cases," Ng says. "They learn what a crime is, what legal procedures are involved. In the courtroom the atmosphere becomes very tense. Sometimes the case drags on, the jury becomes solemn and serious."

Launched seven years ago, the competition attracts between 30 and 50 schools; this year, 30 took part. Participation is by invitation. Renting the courtrooms and gowns, and other expenses cost from HK$800,000 to HK$1 million, which is partly paid for by the schools and partly by sponsors.

"The number of participants is unfortunately limited by the number of volunteers. We keep thinking about how to expand but we have to be realistic. It is not easy to have enough legal practitioners to join," Ng says.

The project has between 40 and 50 legal practitioners to mentor the students and it is an intensive job, especially for those mentoring the top three teams: they have to prepare and compete in five rounds of hearings lasting about six months.

The lawyers and barristers talk with the students about legalities and the work, for example, of the high court, appeal court and solicitor, and also lawyer conduct. They bring examples of similar court cases and help prepare both lawyers and witnesses.

"For the students, it is very stimulating. The school principals and parents are very happy," says Ng, who has been with the society for 15 years.

The schools take it seriously. When one school lost a case, its students wanted to take it to the appeal court. In the end they went to the district court and tried to launch an appeal.

The groups are made up of 15 to 20 students, with eight of them participating in the actual litigation. The others have to prepare a little performance, such as a speech, a song, or a play that demonstrates how the team analysed cases from different angles, and how well they understood the message of the mock trial.

During the competition they are judged on their knowledge of the law, and their attitude and presentation skills.

"The competition develops many skills, such as how to interact with people, how to reconcile and compromise, research, analyse and present. It also offers moral education," Ng says. "After this, team members become very close."

Three students from the team of third runners-up King's College say they received the text for the witness and then they prepared the questions under the guidance of a barrister to cross-examine the witness. The mentor also provided further legal cases and additional information.

The 17-year-olds say the competition made them very busy, and it even clashed with school exams. But the students say they learned new skills and polished existing ones.

"The preparations required a lot of time. We were already very busy, but after joining I had to rearrange my schedule. I have learned that time management is very important and it will always be important, even when I work in a job," says Eugene Huang Yi-jun, who played the witness and had to memorise carefully his entire witness statement.

The second round was the most exciting for them, as team spirit was very high. At one point they felt they had already lost the case but managed to stay optimistic, and didn't give up. When it was their turn, they found the defence's weak points and gained the upper hand. "Being optimistic is very important," they say.

After playing the role of a lawyer, Terrence Cheng Koon-chung was motivated to become one. "We needed good presentation skills and logical thinking to present our arguments and question the witness. Good communication and coordination skills between lawyers and witnesses, and good leadership skills and teamwork to maintain team spirit are also required," he says.

Chester Cheng Chi-to says it was a precious opportunity to join the mock trial and see the case from different perspectives.

"The legal system lies at the heart of any society and it is related to our daily life. Now I pay more attention to social issues and social injustice. I am more motivated to help the needy to pursue justice, and more eager to have better exam results," he says, adding that he, too, wants to be a lawyer.

Ng says the society is trying to involve Band 3 schools, too. Although they often decline, thinking that they will not win, Ng believes that even participating in just one or two rounds is a useful experience. [email protected]