Equity in Court Education

This post will discuss equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusivity best practice in court education. A previous post outlines the roles of curriculum and learning outcomes and contextual, engaging and relevant content in the design and delivery of court education programs.

To define best practice in court education for school students, the Virtual Churchill Court Education Project (the project) considered a broad set of sources. The principles listed below were informed by analysis of: in person interviews with court education providers, teacher and student resources, academic literature and government publications.

Equity and Diversity

In late 2020, iCivics and Generation Citizen’s published the Equity in Civic Education White Paper, which defines equitable civic education as:

… a civic learning experience that is inclusive, representative, and relevant; one that promotes diverse student voices and draws on students’ lived experiences and perspectives in order to engage them in understanding social issues, the power dynamics that cause them, and the power that young people have to bring about change. p 6.

This paper together with the interviews conducted for the project prompted a substantial shift in emphasis. Whilst examining equity and diversity was always embedded in the research, interviews with American court education providers during and after the Capitol Insurrection of the 6th of January brought the need for equity more sharply into focus. In particular, Dr Emma Humphries of iCivics discussing the evolution of the white paper over 18 months, highlighted the need for equity to occupy a central role in any court education program in their organisational structure, publication of resources and the conduct of programs. Subsequently, questions about equity were foregrounded in the research, revealing it as a central concern for all program providers, permeating all aspects of educational delivery.

Provision of equitable, diverse, accessible and inclusive court education programs is the stated goal of all of the providers consulted in the project. However, many spoke of the challenges in meeting this goal. Their central desire to consistently provide students participating in court education programs access to people and experiences that reflect the students’ race, culture, language and religion is clearly expressed by the phrase:

You can’t be what be what you can’t see(Marian Wright Edelman) 

When students ‘see’ people like themselves as part of the legal system they are far more likely to see the legal profession as a potential career, view courts as place where their community needs are represented and ultimately trust and engage with the legal system in a positive manner. (Justice Melissa Perry)

The Black Lives Matters movement, which began in the United States, has had a substantial impact on civic education in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. In legal education, this has resulted in a renewed focus on teaching students about racial justice and also prioritising education and legal personnel that are from the same cultural background and/or gender working with students during in-person program delivery.

As highlighted in the Equity White Paper:

…“I don’t think we could have predicted the laser focus on equity and race that the country is undertaking at the moment.” The impact of this focus had clear implications for our work.p.17.

Dr Emma Humphries of iCivics in her interview stated the key to this approach is to “build a tent that was as big as possible”. Diverse peoples can be given a voice by engaging stakeholders with diverse perspectives – including students, parents, teachers, legislators, community leaders and education providers. By prioritising collaboration and consultation resource design within an equity and diversity framework, organisations are more able to achieve equity goals.

Best Practice education programs and resources are:

  • developed collaboratively with stakeholders 
  • promote diverse perspectives and experiences 
  • staffed by personnel that are from the same cultural background and/or gender (where possible)
  • reflective of the community 
  • honesty and cultural sensitive dealing with issues surrounding racial injustice
International Example

The Justice Education Society of British Columbia delivers a specialised court education program for indigenous peoples. This program is run by a retired lawyer who has worked in the justice system advocating for indigenous Canadians and recognised as an expert in the field. Complimenting the outreach program are  ‘Journeys of Justice’ resources written by an indigenous educator. This alignment of program and resource design with choice of educator is in keeping with the best practice principles outlined above.

Australian Example

The Western Australia Legal Aid Blurred Borders story card project is designed to support the work of community and legal service providers with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory/Western Australia region. Culturally appropriate images and plain language explanations of key legal concepts supports Aboriginal young people and other members of the community to learn about and/or navigate the legal system.

Accessibility and Inclusivity

Providing accessible and inclusive court education programs and resources is an ongoing challenge for the court education providers who participated in the project.

During non-covid times, ensuring physical access to courtrooms and court buildings for students with disabilities can be challenging in some older court buildings. Funding is not always available to provide resources in a format suitable for e-readers, and providers have had difficulty supporting students with vision and hearing impairments as they pivot to online program delivery. One participant discussed the three-year accessibility improvement plan being undertaken in their court buildings and website, to improve their ability to meet the needs of disabled students.

Improving inclusivity is assisted by the positive changes to promote equity and diversity discussed above. Additionally, providers have created more inclusive spaces for schools’ students d by using images of disabled young people in resources, openly discussing the over-representation of people with poor mental health in the justice system and supporting initiatives in legal education for young people with an intellectual disability.

Effectively addressing accessibility and inclusivity is demonstrated by a concerted and consistent effort to translate statements of policy into visible practical outcomes.

Best practice education programs and resources are:

  • physically accessible to disabled students
  • available online in accessible formats
  • consultative of young people with disabilities
  • representative of the diversity of disability in the community
International Example

In the iCivics games Do I Have the Right?, students set up a law firm and provide legal advice to clients about their constitutional rights. Throughout the game a character with a disability, has English language voice overs to support ESL students, and is available in Spanish. They have also begun making their games more accessible for vision and hearing impaired students. The Cast your Vote game includes a screen reader and keyboard navigation.

Australian Example

Whilst not explicitly an education document, the Law Council of Australia October 2020 submission on the National Disability Strategy sets out the need for better accessibility and inclusivity outcomes in the Australian legal system. The submission clearly articulates the need for an inclusive approach to justice access for disabled people, particularly from a disadvantaged background.