NOTL teens help lead their high school to victory in mock trial

·8 min read

Niagara-on-the-Lake showed itself to be a formidable training ground for future young lawyers after three teenagers from town helped lead their school to a legal victory at a competitive mock trial last week.

“It’s so fun. I want to go to law school one day, so having the opportunity to actually get feedback from judges and lawyers and people that are trained — it’s such a great opportunity,” 17-year-old Sophie Hawthorne, a resident of Garrison Village, said in an interview between hearings last Friday.

Sophie, a Grade 11 student, said the experience has inspired her to start looking at post-secondary schools.

She was part of a team of students from A.N. Myer Secondary School in Niagara Falls. Her fellow lawyers-in-training included Emma Mantler, Arshpreet Saini, Madison Sabourin, Megan McMeekin and Mallory Steinburg.

Arshpreet and Madison also live in NOTL.

The participating schools were Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School, E.L. Crossley Secondary School, Denis Morris Catholic High School, St. Francis Catholic Secondary School, Notre Dame College School, Laura Secord Secondary School, Grimsby Secondary School and Myer.

Myer won a hard-fought victory in the final round and that’s not hyperbole. They beat Denis Morris by just one point.

“I think our team won because of the hard work we all put in, our ability to work together and have each other's back, the amazing tips and tricks from our lawyer coach, and our teacher's help and experience to prepare us,” student Emma Mantler said.

With their victory, A.N. Myer became the first school in competition history to win back-to-back trials, finishing first last year as well, Sophie said.

Throughout the day Myer won three of its four trials. But Sophie was undeterred by that single defeat.

“Honestly, I thought I would care that we just lost and I’m not upset at all. We’re just having so much fun,” she said.

The annual event is part of a provincewide program between the Ontario Bar Association and the Ontario Justice Education Network. It's called the Competitive Mock Trials for High School Students and is designed to give legal-minded kids a chance to experience a trial first-hand.

Lawyer David D’Intino organized the Niagara arm of the trials.

He worked overtime to ensure the kids would be able to compete in an actual courtroom. His efforts paid off as the Niagara students were the only ones in the entire province who got to experience the thrill of court in person last week. All other trials were conducted over Zoom.

“It’s presented some challenges but I’m really happy and I’m really proud that we are able to do it in person and I told them, ‘If I have to scrub every square inch of every surface with Windex and Lysol, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes,’ ” D’Intino said in an interview at the St. Catharines Courthouse, where the trials were held.

He said there was no such program when he was a young lawyer coming up in Niagara and instead the kids would just hold a mock trial in class.

“I think I had a Crayola briefcase or something, and I remember that the judge was my friend’s girlfriend. She didn’t like me very much so she threw me out of the court. That kind of stuck with me,” D’Intino said with a laugh.

Ensuring the students had an authentic experience was his main motivation, he said.

“It’s a good way to give these kids a positive interaction, their first kind of impression of the justice system.”

The in-person experience was not lost on them.

“It made it all so much more real. Better practice as well. Our school did it last year online and it just doesn’t compare,” Sophie said.

“Being able to argue in front of a real judge was an amazing opportunity. Presenting him our case and being able to get feedback on the work we did really allowed me to think of the case in different ways,” 17-year-old Megan McMeekin said after her team's final victory.

Megan, a resident of Niagara Falls, said she hopes to become a Crown attorney one day.

Sophie has known for a long time that she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I’ve wanted to do criminal law since I was in Grade 6,” she said.

“My parents aren’t very big fans of that. They want me to be Crown,” she said with a laugh.

But the young NOTLer says all people deserve a chance for fair representation.

“Everyone needs a defence, so I really want to do that,” she said.

Sophie said her natural contentious nature is what led her toward law.

“I’ve always been the most argumentative kid ever, so I might as well get paid for that,” she said.

But there is always a deep-seated inspiration for the dreams we chase.

“Of course, there was Elle Woods (the main character for the film 'Legally Blonde') as well,” Sophie admitted.

She wasn’t the only one to name drop the legendary film lawyer played by Reese Witherspoon.

“I wanted to have an Elle Woods moment,” said Mallory Steinburg of Niagara Falls.

She doesn’t want to be a lawyer and is pursuing psychology at the University of Guelph next year.

“There is a great deal of advocating one must do for their patients,” she said.

“Through my experience with the law through this mock trial, I’ve been able to gain the knowledge of what it takes to support my clients' best interests.”

Here is how the day played out:

There were eight schools involved in the mock trial. In the morning, each got a chance to represent the prosecution and the defence in two separate trials.

Depending on whom they were representing, the students had different roles. Some were lawyers and others were the witnesses in the trial.

The importance of having a good witness was impressed upon the schools and strong interactions between lawyers and witnesses were often a highlight for the judges and lawyers overseeing the trials.

Each team was scored on their performance. Whoever did the best moved on to the final two rounds, where a coin flip determined which side they would represent.

All the lawyers and judges involved in the mock trial volunteered their time, a generous gesture for professionals who thrive on billable hours.

Deputy Judge Rod McDowell explained why he was there.

“It’s very simple, it helps students understand what the law's about and get some practical experience of trying to do it,” he said in an interview after overseeing one of the trials.

“And I think that’s very important. The more people that are exposed to that the better they will understand the system.”

He recalled the limited scope of judicial representation during his childhood.

“When I was growing up all we had was (television show) 'Perry Mason' and stuff like that. This is much closer to the reality and that’s important for people to understand.”

Students were arguing a case called R. v. Smalls. The case centred around an attempt at prison intimidation gone wrong. Two inmates, one of them Jordan Morrow, were trying to smack new inmate Rory Smalls in the back of the head to send a message that they should not be messed with.

This incident started a larger brawl that resulted in Smalls, initially targeted for the intimidation, returning to the fight after escaping and stabbing Morrow in the neck with a shiv.

The prosecution was based around Smalls being charged with assault causing bodily harm. The team from Myer won all three of its prosecution sessions.

“Your honour, what have we learned from this case?” NOTL’s Madison Sabourin said in starting her closing statement during the final trial.

“We learned that the defendant, Rory Smalls, was not acting in self-defence and rather attacked the victim of this case, Jordan Morrow, leaving Morrow, a party uninvolved with gang activity, severely injured.”

“Jordon Morrow may have been the victim of a malicious gang crime but, your honour, do not let him be a victim of the justice system.”

Judge Peter Wilkie, a NOTL resident who retired six months ago, returned to the courtroom to preside over the final trial.

“I just want to say before anyone else, I haven’t been here all day. I was parachuted in here at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” Wilkie said when telling the schools the final verdict.

“But, boy was I blown away with how hard you guys have worked, obviously, and all the effort you put into it and how professional you all were, and appeared and acted.”

He said he was impressed by the poise, control and comfort the two final teams exhibited in the lengthy final trial, which lasted well over an hour.

In all, the students spent nearly 10 hours in the St. Catharines courthouse arguing their case.

“I hope, in due course, some of you decide to become advocates. Being a lawyer is a wonderful thing," Wilkie said.

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report

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