Most people tend to believe that the law is purely black and white; you are either guilty or not guilty. However, this is rarely the case. More often than not, the law is a grey area. This was one of the most important, and surprising, lessons I learnt while in Ms. Raquelle Chin’s Law 12 class. Another important point to remember is that not guilty does not mean innocent, it simply means that there is not enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case in question is the same one that Chin’s Law 12 classes use for their mock trial every year. At first, the case appears to be clear-cut: a senior police officer, Alex Sebastian, is accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol contrary to section 253 (a) of the Criminal Code of Canada. However, once you begin to read through the witness statements, the truth becomes less apparent. The evidence presented in the testimonies simply raises questions. These questions must all be answered in order for the case to begin.
The preparation process is a long one and begins almost three weeks prior to the court date. The students are each assigned roles: 4 lawyers, 7 witnesses and 12 researchers. The witnesses must come up with their profile and any evidence pertaining to them. These profiles serve to answer any questions surrounding their testimony and provide important background on the witness. The preparation process in itself was a learning experience. It has been described as “the ultimate group project,” as everyone is dependant on everyone else. Communication and collaboration is essential for this part of the trial.
The researchers (who will serve as the jury during the trial itself) are faced with the daunting task of creating any evidence that could be required during the trial. While most of this evidence will not get called in court, it nevertheless provides the backbone for the case. Researchers create vital evidence such as the timeline of events and the map of the town in which the accident takes place.
Arguably the most difficult task falls to the lawyers, who are charged with formulating a game plan, deciding which witnesses to call, interviewing witnesses and selecting which evidence is necessary to their case.
Once the trial began, it was important for the jury to remain completely unbiased despite any preconceived ideas or biases they may have formed during the preparation. Contrary to normal court procedure, the jury was allowed (and encouraged) to ask questions once the side leading the questioning had finished their redirect. This allowed the jury to become more involved in the trial itself. While this would not have happened in an actual court setting, it gave the jury a chance to voice their opinions as they had the most intimate knowledge of the evidence. Apart from this small modification, the mock trial was an almost perfect replica of the real court system.
In Chin’s block B Law class, the prosecution altered the charge against the accused from driving while under the influence to criminal negligence, section 219 (1) of the Criminal Code of Canada. Their goal was to prove that the accused had acted with negligence in regards to his job and had thus endangered the public.
During the jury’s deliberations, evidence and testimonies from both sides were discussed. In the end, the decision boiled down to one of the fundamental principles of justice: could guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt? While some jurors were of the mind that the accused had been negligent in his duties, it soon became apparent that there was still reasonable doubt and thus the accused was found not guilty by a unanimous verdict. As previously stated, most students enter the class with the assumption that the law is clear cut, a simple set of rules and an equally simple set of punishments. The mock trial case revealed to the class that the law is a grey area and the winning side is often the side that can best twist or interpret the law to their favour.
During the semester in Chin’s Law 12 class, I realized that the law rules more of our lives than we may think. For example, while researching a project, I stumbled upon the Canadian Motor Vehicle Act. This document contains important information for young drivers that is not included in the handbook, but the table of contents alone is eight pages long.
The law plays an essential part in our lives, but many people are not informed. This poses a large problem as ignorance of the law cannot be used as a defence in a court of law.
Feature photo courtesy of: https://www.istockphoto.com/ca/photos/courtroom