High school students visit Scarborough Courthouse.
Each year thousands of students pass through the doors of Ontario courthouses to observe the justice system in action. Enhancing courthouse visits, making the experience a positive and enriching one for high school students, was the initial concept that sparked the creation of the Ontario Justice Education Network. Courtrooms & Classrooms, OJEN’s flagship program, has grown to involve more than 70 courthouses province-wide. Thanks to the Courtrooms & Classrooms coordinators at these courthouses and the judiciary who volunteer their time, approximately 20,000 students enjoyed OJEN’s court visit program last year alone.
Court Visits Teach About Law in Real Life
Brad Boucher, who teaches grades 11 and 12 law at St. Pius X High School in Ottawa, has been taking his students on court visits to the Ottawa Court House for ten years. He encourages all law teachers to take advantage of the court visit program. Not only does it tie in with curriculum for both courses, but it also dispels misconceptions students might have about the legal system based on what they see on TV. He prepares his students in advance about court room etiquette and reminds them that the individuals they encounter are real people experiencing real life legal problems. Witnessing the human side of law becomes an opportunity for them to develop empathy.
For the aspiring lawyers in his classes, Brad says, the exposure to court in action is valuable. For some it confirms that it’s the career they want to pursue. Others decide it’s not for them after all. Whether they envision a career in law for themselves or not, students find the experience meaningful.
“Walking through the doors of the courthouse for the first time can be intimidating. Seeing what court is really like is an important lesson for life.”
Welcoming Students to 361 University Courthouse
Of all the Ontario courthouses, Toronto’s 361 University Courthouse welcomes more students than any other. Over 14,400 students visited in 2017 alone. Responding to teachers’ requests, booking courtrooms for Question and Answer sessions, recruiting judges and lawyers to speak with the students and managing the movement of the visitors is the domain of Courtrooms & Classrooms Coordinator, Tiffany Shaw.
Tiffany is passionate about her role coordinating school visits to the courthouse. A large part of her job involves organizing the pre-court Question and Answer session with judges and lawyers. The courthouse offers 85 Q & A sessions per year. About 40 judges and 40 Crown lawyers participate in the program regularly. This year she is hoping to include more defense lawyers to the roster. Filling the schedule is not difficult, she says. Speaking with students is a popular activity among the judiciary. Often judges will come to her and tell her when they’re available and ask her to slot them in. Crown lawyers come from all across the GTA to volunteer for the sessions. As class bookings increase, the greatest challenge is finding a courtroom big enough to hold all of the students.
Originally designed as a more formal lecture style presentation, the pre-court sessions now take the form of student led Q & A. Tiffany encourages students to make good use of the 45 minutes to an hour they spend with judges and lawyers.
“This is your justice system. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to ask about anything you want to know.”
Sitting in on a Q & A Session
On a snowy morning in February students from Jessica Nelligan’s grade 11 law class from Northern Secondary School in Toronto stream into the court room. Tiffany tells them they can sit anywhere they want, except for the judges’ dais. They take her up on the offer, filling the jury box, prisoner’s dock, witness stand and Crown and defence tables as well as the gallery. Everyone rises as Justice Suhail Akhtar of the Superior Court of Justice enters the room and takes his place. Tiffany introduces him as well as defence counsel, Aitan Lerner who has volunteered to meet with the students that day. After brief introductions, the floor is opened for questions.
Sometimes students are shy at the beginning, but when they discover that their questions are taken seriously and answered candidly, the sessions can become lively. Today, students have lots of questions. Some related to points of procedure. “What happens if new evidence turns up during a trial?’ “When is the defence required to disclose new evidence?” Some were more personal in nature. “What was your most difficult case?” “What was your career path to become a lawyer/judge?” Some were philosophical. “What is the one thing you would do to improve the justice system in Canada?” “Why are Indigenous and black people over-represented in prisons?”
More than an hour flies by before Justice Akhtar takes the last question. Both he and Mr. Lerner have obviously enjoyed the exchange. When they leave the room, Tiffany supplies the teacher with a list of the proceeding taking place in various court rooms. Students have the rest of the morning to observe court in session.
“Students get different things from court visits. It can set some on a new career path. It may not be so profound for others. But having a first positive experience with the justice system is beneficial for everyone,” Tiffany says.
Planning a courthouse visit? OJEN’s online booking form simplifies the process. Click on the link to locate and choose the courthouse you want to visit. Request your preferred dates and your class information. Download a courthouse visit lesson plan and information on courthouse security protocol. The Courtrooms & Classrooms Coordinator will get back to you to confirm your visit.