Recommendation 2: Embedded and Onsite Educators
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic many of the project participants conducted experiential in-person programs with students visiting courts and other buildings such as museums, legal professional bodies and law enforcement premises. Facilitators or volunteers were embedded onsite, examples include: visitor officers at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, court educators and legal personnel volunteers at Discovering Justice in the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse.
The benefits of an embedded educator within a court are substantial. Organisations reported these as:
- strong relationships with judiciary, the legal professions, court staff and law enforcement
- the ability to engender a culture of education for young people within the court building
- access to expertise to inform and support the development and delivery of resources and programs
- onsite location allowing for the ability to develop spaces suitable for education program delivery
The organisations involved the project have two distinct corporate structures. The majority favour a not-for-profit philanthropic funded structure, with a combination of donations and grants funding the development and delivery of the resources and programs. A smaller, but very effective, group are embedded in courts, universities or legal professional organisations, with funding, staffing and administrative support provided by the institution.
Interviewees from the not-for-profit group reported substantial difficulty ensuring ongoing funding, especially for back-office functions and long-term projects. A number discussed how the time and effort required to secure funding limited the ability of some staff to innovate and also impacted adversely on program delivery. One organisation reported how the impact of the pandemic had meant a substantial loss of funding and the flow on effect of a reduction in staff numbers and program delivery.
The Benefits of being Embedded and Onsite
In contrast, members of the embedded and onsite group reported the ease of maintaining stability in program delivery and resource development. They discussed how the scope and quality of their resources and programs were a direct result of the certainty provided by the institutional funding model and corporate structure. The ability to access other forms of expertise such as public relations/marketing support, IT support and graphic design, along with legal knowledge has supported the development of new and responsive programs and provide a better user centred online presence. Some of the organisations augment their institutional funding with partnerships with philanthropic bodies and universities. The mixed funding model has allowed them to support court educators in the privately funded sector with provision of conferences, policy direction and thought leadership.
The ability to contribute to planning and funding decisions within a court cannot be underestimated. One participant reported how, by persuasively arguing for education specific spaces, they had been able to provide a study centre for students visiting the court to learn about legal research and interact with judiciary and other legal professional personnel in an informal way.
Challenges of being a part of an Institution
However, there are constraints of delivering programs from within an institution. The requirements for courts to be politically impartial, security conscious, socially conservative and effectively closed institutions can inhibit program delivery. As discussed previously, promoting engagement by young people requires strong linkages to community concerns and current events. This can be difficult for court educators to achieve. The requirement of educators avoiding discussing controversial cases before the court can negatively impact on student engagement. The United States Federal Court has solved this problem by focussing their resources on historical cases and allowed for educators and teachers to use them as a starting point for a more contemporary discussion with students.
The inherently conservative and slow to change culture of courts protect the common law legal system from radicalism. The stability of slow change through precedent usually underpins the high level of trust in the courts. Interviewees reported that many students from marginalised and disadvantaged communities saw these fundamentals of the system as promoting injustice and mistreatment of members of their communities. Trying to overcome the gap between the racial and cultural profile of members of the judiciary and the students visiting the courts can be very difficult for educators.Many discussed how balancing engagement, relevance and equity with the reality of courts had become more difficult in recent years as student’s have become more politically aware and able to articulate strong views on ‘justice’.
Recommendation for Australian Courts
A small number of Australian courts have adopted the embedded and/or onsite educator model. The successes and challenges of these programs reflects the international perspective discussed above.
The recommendation of this report is that where possible all Australian courts and other legal institutions employ specialist court educators in their buildings, and support them with sustained funding and administrative support. The research conducted by this project has shown that this is the best way to ensure the effective and on-going provision of best practice court education for school students.