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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Court in the act
Tony Howarth
Pupils had the help of real-life magistrate, Tony Howarth
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

The defendant in the dock looked surprisingly relaxed.

He had pleaded guilty and was now about to hear his punishment from a serious-looking line-up of magistrates.

Despite the appeals for leniency from his anxious mother, he knew that he would have to pay the price for his actions.

Joe playing the role of John
Role play helps bring the theory alive
John had stolen a bike - "just for a laugh" and now he was finding out the consequences of what happens when you break the law.

In fact, his real name was Joe, and along with the rest of his class of 10- and 11-year-olds, he was finding out how the legal process works by taking part in a mock court case, as part of an innovative citizenship project believed to be the first of its kind for primary schools.

Citizenship is intended to help young people understand more about the society in which they live stretching the curriculum into areas such as personal finance, how democracy works and in this case, the justice system.

Prosecution and defence

The pupils, from Thrupp Primary School, in the village of Thrupp, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, were acting out the parts of the accused, the prosecution and defence, the court clerk, magistrates and a collection of other people affected by such cases the accused's family, the victim and the youth offending agencies.

And after due deliberation, in a trial staged in Stroud council chambers, the magistrates decided that the bicycle thief would have to perform community service and write a letter of apology to the owner.

Phoebe - the prosecutor
Phoebe says there is a difference between need and greed
So what did this tell these primary schoolchildren about how justice works?

"Everyone should do something like this, because it makes you think about how people end up in real life and what decisions you should take whether you're going to be one of the magistrates or the accused. There's nowhere else to learn about this other than the television," says one of the prosecution team, Phoebe.

But she says that although the courts are "mostly fair", she didn't believe that the accused were always going to be able to understand the process of law.

"The letter of apology was a good idea, but I'd try to get the accused to talk to people and ask them why they did what they did," she said.

Right and wrong

Another prosecutor, Josh, says the project has made them think much more about how you decide what's right and wrong and how the courts should rule on this.

Josh has enjoyed finding out about right and wrong
Leading the magistrates was the only adult in the mock trial, the chair of the local magistrates bench, Tony Howarth. And he says that the junior magistrates can be less forgiving than their adult counterparts with an expectation that there should be a punishment after a crime.

But children were also sympathetic to circumstances that might explain a criminal's action, he said.

The young prosecutor Phoebe said that there was a big difference between stealing from greed and stealing from need.

And Joe, the accused, said that although the system was usually fair, there were times when innocent people were punished. And there were other times when the guilty got off too lightly, such as in racism cases.

Sarah Barnes, the class teacher, says that this citizenship project is a way of showing youngsters "why we need rules, who makes laws and how they are enforced".

Sarah Barnes
Sarah Barnes: Explaining why rules and laws are necessary
The project brought magistrates, youth offending officers and the police to give talks at the schools and the class had a trip to the courthouse in Stroud, which their teacher says was very different from how they expected: "It was so small and there were no judges in wigs."

Another magistrate, Ian Whittle, from the local business education partnership which helped to set up the mock trial, said that the schoolchildren had also been surprised by the length of sentences that could be theoretically applied.

And reflecting that this has made a considerable impact, several of the pupils warned that "you could get seven years for stealing a Mars bar".

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See also:

14 May 99 | Education
Pupils to be taught 'citizenship'
13 Dec 00 | Education
School leavers' passport to the law
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