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From the OJEN Blog

The Importance of Justice Sector Volunteers in the Classroom

Aarika Heath practices criminal law in Brampton, Ontario but her first experience in a court room took place nine years ago as a student representing Brampton Centennial Secondary School in the Peel Region Mock Trial Tournament.  Although, at the time she was already passionate about law, she had never set foot inside a court room before. This first experience confirmed for her that here was the place she wanted to be.

Today she is one of hundreds of justice sector professionals throughout the province who volunteer their time each year to go into classrooms or community centres to coach mock hearings or talk with youth about how the justice system works.

“A lot of people have preconceived ideas about lawyers,” she says.  “What they look like, what they wear.  When I first started practising law people often told me that I wasn’t what they expected.  I always tell students that lawyers are not all the same.”

In many cases, youth participating in OJEN/ROEJ projects have never met lawyers, justices of the peace or judges and their knowledge of justice professionals is derived from television shows, movies or second hand accounts from people they know.  Meeting and engaging with justice sector volunteers who come into their communities can profoundly affect their perception of the justice system as a whole.

At a justice education project in an East Scarborough youth group, one young woman spoke of her experience meeting a defense lawyer and a police officer, both of whom had grown up in that same neighbourhood.

“They had a lot of the same experiences growing up as we do and they decided the best way to change the system was from the inside.”

For the youth in that project, the face of the justice system had become a face they could recognize and relate to.  Meeting justice professionals with similar backgrounds to the participants humanizes an institution that can otherwise be intimidating and impersonal.  Moreover, for youth who may already have established negative perceptions of the justice system, it offers the possibility that something positive might exist.

In OJEN/ROEJ’s newcomer projects, participants discover that others who have come before them have found a place in the justice system as lawyers, justices of the peace and judges.

Matching volunteers to specific projects, therefore, is an important consideration for OJEN/ROEJ in the planning stages.  Whether it is youth from highly policed communities, newcomer groups or high school classes preparing for a mock hearing, the impact of the project can be profoundly influenced by the volunteers delivering it.

For Aarika, taking time out of a hectic schedule can be a refreshing change of pace.

“It’s nice to spend time with young people who are so excited to know about things and to get out and be part of the community,” she says. “It’s challenging to answer all their questions but talking to them helps me remember what it is that I enjoy so much about the law.”

By Nadine Demoe

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