Each year, hundreds of high school students throughout Ontario compete in OJEN’s Charter Challenge. The only mock appeal program for high school students in Ontario, students are given a mock judicial decision in which complex Charter issues are raised on appeal. Student teams research and write a factum with legal arguments in favour of the appellant or the respondent. Finalist teams on either side meet to make their arguments at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, either in person or via Zoom.
Usually, the story ends when the verdict is announced and students turn to a new page in their law studies. However, this year, we are pleased to add another chapter to the Charter Challenge story.
The Charter Challenge is a big program. It requires a significant amount of volunteer time and expertise from preparation through to delivery. Over the years, Court of Appeal clerks have been a valuable source of assistance. They prepare backgrounder documents for teachers that help them guide students in their research and assess their completed work. They volunteer to answer questions from students on the virtual OJEN message board and they select the two finalist teams from a shortlist of the strongest factums. They also provide support on the day of the final itself.
Former participants volunteer with program
This year, we were surprised and delighted to discover that two of the Court of Appeal clerks volunteering on the Fall Charter Challenge, participated in the program as high school students themselves. Mackenzie Claggett and Matthew Patterson graduated from different Ontario highschools in 2014; Mackenzie from Humberview Secondary School in Bolton and Matthew from Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga. We spoke with them about what it is like revisiting the Charter Challenge at this point in their career.
Beginning their new positions at the Court of Appeal, they were both surprised to learn they would have an opportunity to volunteer on the program.
“On our first day we were told that clerks participate in Pro Bono initiatives and one thing they do is help organize the OJEN [Charter Challenge] and I thought, ‘I did that! I was one of those students!’” Mackenzie remembered.
Matthew also jumped at the chance to work on the program. “It’s a cool way to come full circle,” he told us.
In highschool, both Matthew and Mackenzie remember being very engaged in the Charter Challenge activity in their law classes. The issues addressed in the cases were interesting and received a lot of media attention at the time. Both Mackenzie’s and Matthew’s teams were selected to advance to the finals, although in different years. Coming to Toronto to present their arguments in front of an Appeal Court judge was a memorable experience.
Reflecting on the Charter Challenge experience
“I was amped for it,” Matthew recalled. “That was something I was looking forward to. I was very involved with a number of things in high school. I did tons of extracurriculars. But that’s one of the things that sticks out most in my mind – the Charter Challenge experience. I don’t think I appreciated then as I do now, just how much of a cool experience it was. I didn’t get to moot in front of a Court of Appeal judge in all of law school. But I got to do it in high school. That’s a pretty cool experience to have at that age.”
“It was definitely intimidating,” Mackenzie told us. “I had no idea what I was doing. I really didn’t know what a moot was and I was doing this in front of an actual Court of Appeal judge. I’d just learned what the Court of Appeal was.”
It was, however, a great learning experience. Going into the Charter Challenge with no plans to pursue a career in law and no connections with anyone who practiced law, provided a rare look into the legal world.
“I didn’t really have a sense of the legal institutions or the legal processes involved in constitutional adjudication. I was aware of the debates and controversies but I didn’t know, on the ground, what that process actually looked like. I thought the program was wonderful in exposing me to just a shred of what that process might actually be and what it might actually look like to practice law and be a lawyer. I thought that was really important for someone with my background – where I don’t have any lawyers in the family or friends who are lawyers who could give me information on what legal practice is like. That’s the value that I took away from the program.”
Benefits of the Charter Challenge program
Not everyone who participates in the Charter Challenge goes on to legal careers. Only one other of Matthew and Mackenzie’s teammates went on to study law. They both agree that the program has much to offer students no matter what career path they pursue. Preparing the factum and presenting arguments to a panel of judges develops reading and writing skills as well as public speaking skills. Mackenzie also mentioned how the program increased students’ understanding of civic institutions. Matthew appreciated what he gained from the teamwork that went into preparing the factum.
“You do group projects in high school and it’s usually a presentation or some sort of written assignment. The idea of producing a professional style document with a group – taking different parts, helping with each other’s parts, researching together – that’s something that goes into a lot of professions. Putting together a professional work product as a team – developing those skills early – is huge. That soft-skill development and exposure to a more intense, interesting experience is really cool. I think all of us got a lot out of that.”
Re-visiting the program as a volunteer
So what is the experience like at the other side of the Charter Challenge?
“In the past few weeks I’ve really appreciated the amount of time that goes into organizing these events,” Mackenzie commented. “We spent a fair bit of time putting together the backgrounders and I know that OJEN takes a lot of time in preparing and organizing the Charter Challenge.”
“There are a lot of really impressive volunteers who put it all together,” Matthew added. “I think this year’s problem is really well written. I think it’s a fun challenge. It’s something topical in the media that students would be aware of. And I’m very excited to read their factums.”
When the Fall 2022 Charter Challenge finalists face each other at the Court of Appeal on December 15th to consider the prohibition of live broadcasting in Canadian courtrooms, no one will understand better than Mackenzie and Matthew the excitement and anxiety the students are experiencing. We hope all the participants will also come to look back on the Charter Challenge as a highlight of their time in high school.
Thanks to everyone at the Court of Appeal and to all the volunteers for contributing this unique learning experience that enriches students’ understanding of the legal system.