Legal eagles soar high

Sylvania High School students flew the flag for public education in the 2023 Mock Trial Competition. Linda Doherty reports.

Students and teachers standing or kneeling in two rows. Students and teachers standing or kneeling in two rows.
Image: Sylvania High School Mock Trial team: top row from left, co-coach Linda Ryan, Madeline Davis, Flynn Porter, Jake Luu, Mia McKelvey, Amaris Fotoulis, co-coach Lauren Zammit; bottom row from left, Savvina Denezis, Damien Hong, Chloe Myrianthis. Absent from photo: Josh Leek.

For months on end the Mock Trial team at Sylvania High School met weekly to pore over case law, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and practise cross-examination techniques so they could expect the unexpected.

The preparation of the Year 10 and 11 students was forensic and as the competition ran through the round robin and elimination stages, Sylvania High was top of the NSW leader board on points heading into the quarter finals.

The team was the only public school left in the competition, recording the best performance by a comprehensive government school in 15 years

The Mock Trial Competition, conducted by The Law Society of New South Wales, introduces students to the law and judicial system through mock trials based on real civil and criminal cases in the Local and District courts.

Sylvania High School Legal Studies teacher Linda Ryan said the competition develops students’ skills in critical thinking, collaborative teamwork, public speaking, writing and analysis, as well as knowledge of the legal system and processes.

“The achievement as a team this year was exceptional,” Mrs Ryan said.

“We have a team of students in years 10 and 11, with everyone involved in all the research and preparation. The older students take the main roles in the trials but it’s always a team approach.

“By the time the students start Year 11 they require little training and can develop the skills needed. They are confident with legal terminology and understand how to advance an argument and cross-examine.”

In each round of the competition students play the roles of barrister, solicitor, witness, court officer and magistrate’s clerk. Each trial is presided over by a magistrate, a volunteer solicitor or barrister allocated by the Law Society.

When the leaderboard went up for the 2023 quarter finals in September, Sylvania High was in number one spot, ahead of Chevalier College, the 2022 state champion, and Loreto Kirribilli (2021 champion). Sylvania High had eliminated St Catherine’s School (2020 champion) by winning the defence in an assault case about a fight at a basketball match.

Team member Chloe Myrianthis said the students and their teachers had worked hard to get so far, putting in hours of practice and research at school and in lunch breaks.

“We felt like we were flying the flag for public education, up against all these private schools,” she said.

In the quarter final in September, Sylvania High and Brigidine College St Ives scored equal points, but Mock Trial rules prevent a tie being called. Instead, the presiding magistrate had to award the win to one of the teams and chose Brigidine College.

A student stands at a table reading from a sheet of paper while two others look on. A student stands at a table reading from a sheet of paper while two others look on.
Image: Sylvania High School student Flynn Porter speaks during a Mock Trial.

The case of the spiked muffin

The strangest case the Sylvania High team faced this year was defending a man accused of spiking a muffin with magic mushrooms.

Flynn Porter, who opened for the defence as a barrister, said the team worked on creating doubt, as the offence had to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

“There was no evidence or observations that the defence had actually inserted a substance into the muffin . . . so we were able to point to an inadequate police investigation,” he said.

Savvina Denezis said the team discussed different scenarios in what was a “weird but interesting case, with a lot of leeway as to what could have happened”.

Just as in real court cases, there can be mere minutes to analyse and pull apart a witness statement or key facts, with solicitors passing notes to the barristers and heads buried in intense discussion.

Barrister Chloe said the team had to be prepared “for whatever they threw at us”.

“You can get blindsided by witness statements, and only have a few minutes before the cross-examination,” she said.

Amaris Fotoulis, who often took the role of witness, said the trial experiences had improved her confidence and deepened her knowledge of Legal Studies.

“I did struggle with public speaking at first, but I built up my confidence by practising and staying confident,” she said.

Flynn, who is interested in studying law when he finishes the HSC next year, said the Mock Trial gave him insight into how the law works.

“We have to look at case law and understand legislation and elements of the offence,” he said.

The team was disappointed to be pipped at the post in the quarter finals, but as Savvina summed up for the prosecution “we’re just so proud of how we grew as a team and excelled”.

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