Here Comes the Judge
About 30,000 students in Ontario have met with judges, lawyers and court staff to learn about the justice system as part of Courtrooms and Classrooms program.
By Helen Dolik
How often does a student get the opportunity to chat directly with a judge or lawyer about lying witnesses, guilty clients, a Crown prosecutorís job or the TV show Judge Judy?
Itís happening regularly in courtrooms across Ontario.
Students have visited courtrooms for years as passive spectators but thereís a new twist in their visits to the hallowed halls of justice Ė they can be active participants. Theyíre getting exclusive face-to-face time with judges, lawyers and court staff to better understand the justice system.
Courtrooms and Classrooms, a major initiative of the Ontario Justice Education Network, allows students to meet with judges and other legal professionals in courtrooms around Ontario. The program was launched in 2001 and close to 30,000 students have benefited from the experience, including 14,000 in Toronto. The program also sends judges and lawyers to classrooms in the province.
The hundreds of judges, Crown attorneys, lawyers and other court staff donate their time for the program.
"Coming down here removes the court and the law from the fantasyland that movies and TV create," says Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School teacher Anyta Kyriakou. "They understand how it can and does affect lives."
Her Grade 11 law class brushed up on their courtroom etiquette before their visit and brainstormed for questions to ask the judge. Donít make loud noises, chew gum or sleep in the courtrooms, they were reminded at the courthouse.
The 26 students from the Scarborough school gathered in the lobby of the stately Ontario Court of Justice at Old City Hall on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto on a rainy March morning for their court visit. They scattered in small groups to various courtrooms first, to view trials in progress.
An hour later, the students congregated in Room 125 for their close encounter of the legal kind with a judge, lawyers and a court reporter.
A friendly Justice Peter Hryn invited the Mary Ward students to sit closer in the seats normally occupied by counsel. Hryn volunteered his time during the lunch recess in his courtroom to answer questions like "how do you deal with a witness who is lying?" and to explain the difference between criminal and civil cases. He does this about twice a month.
"I think itís good for people to know what the courts do," Hryn says. "Itís a good learning process for the students."
Crown attorney Arish Khoorshed, defence lawyer Janet Leiper and court reporter Cheryl Mayhew also gave up their lunch hour to talk about their jobs.
"I thought it was excellent," says student Michael Martins, 16. "The lawyers gave me a lot of insight into what their jobs are about. I never envisioned the courts like this. So actually seeing it helped paint the picture."
Student Conor McTernan, 17, rated the experience a good one for a school trip. "I liked the defence attorney. She was interesting and down-to-earth."
But student Rocco Lamanna, 17, found the whole environment a little confusing and hectic. "I thought I might be interested in something to do with the law but after coming here I donít think thatís the case," he says.
"I think they got a lot out of being able to talk to the judge, particularly after spending a little time first observing the other courtrooms," says their law class teacher. "Itís a fantastic opportunity for the students to see in practice what theyíve learned in theory."
The Ontario Justice Education Network includes legal and educational professionals and is funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. The Courtrooms and Classrooms program is open to elementary and secondary school classes.
"Itís a really innovative opportunity for students to get a direct understanding of the judicial system," says Taivi Lobu, the Networkís executive director. "To understand the values and thinking that goes on behind the courtroom drama of news reports. To see the human face of the justice system."
Chief Justice of Ontario Roy McMurtry supports the program. "Although most citizens probably do not want ever to find themselves in a courtroom, nevertheless, what goes on in the courts is relevant to the lives of all of the people of Ontario," he says. "The strengthening of citizensí knowledge of the legal system and the administration of justice strengthens a vital pillar of democracy."
To schedule a visit, call your local courthouse and ask for a teacher request form. The forms can also be found at www.ontariocourts.on.ca.
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