Legal Argumentation through Case Simulation – Lessons from an Unforgettable ‘Field Trip’

Visiting M-EPLI and Maastricht University Faculty of Law is a great reason to share thoughts on legal education. This author’s home unit, University of Helsinki Faculty of Law, organised in March 2014 a major case simulation course, which was now held for the third time. The basic idea is simple: a big group of students, divided into ‘parties’ to an imaginary case, is taken to the Finnish countryside for two days. Exploring relevant law, arguing, litigating and settling on the intensive course is year after year described by the Helsinki law students as the best thing they ever did in law school. In addition to fun, the course provides an opportunity to practice skills that law schools should maybe emphasise more than many of them currently do. 

The case simulation course ‘Lammin Laki’ (‘Law at Lammi’) was held for the first time in 2012 at the Biological Station of Lammi, in the Finnish countryside. The venue provided a possibility to concentrate only on the course for two days, far from the distractions of normal ‘schooldays’. The idea was to focus on legal analysis and argumentation skills in a way that was unusual at the Faculty, concentrating on a huge case that transcended fields of law and the border between legal and moral issues.[1] The course was an eye-opening experience – after this, the ‘case simulation excursion’ has been made annually with 45–60 students.

Case simulation course of 2014

Details of the 2014 course help to understand the format: The course was planned by a group of teachers of several fields of law, led by Assistant Professor Sakari Melander. Preparations included writing a complex and manifold case, which this year dealt with, among other things, human cloning (previous years the theme has been animals’ rights). The facts of the case included, roughly: a stolen truck with laboratory supplies, a battered truck driver, the old professor who had ordered the supplies actually experimenting on human cloning and this being revealed as the police investigate the robbery. Of course, there were many rising damages claims and criminal charges. Students worked in groups that were parties to the case. In addition to the more obvious parties – such as judges, prosecutors, mediators, robbers and so on – there was also a media group and two non-profit organisations, the other being a religious association opposing cloning and the other a liberal pro-cloning organisation. Also, for instance, a group of law professors was included (and offered legal expertise at a reasonable cost to the parties preparing for the trial, and critically analysed the judgment afterwards). In total, there were 11 groups.

The two-day intensive period included mini lectures that were brief insights into law relevant for the case, group work in the party groups and then simulated settlement negotiations, a simulated trial and, after the trial, a simulated discussion meeting of a legal-political association. In addition to the intensive period at the Lammi Station, the students were to read a small amount of assigned literature before the course and write a learning diary after the intensive period. The main emphasis was, however, on the work of the party groups, which researched any law and legal sources they found important and prepared for their role in the simulations, and on the simulations themselves. Each of the party groups was mentored by a teacher. The format could be described as a cousin of problem-based learning.

Legal education and benefits of case simulation

The skills the students used and improved during the course were, for instance, group work and negotiation skills, legal analysis and research skills and presentation and argumentation skills. The real-like feeling of the preparations and the settlement and trial simulations was increased by the fact that the party groups had, like it would be in any normal court case, varying and asymmetric information on the facts of the case. During the group work part, the parties could communicate with each other, make agreements, decide to cooperate when preparing for the trial and so on. At this point, the teachers happily followed as the ‘transport company’ agreed to protect the drunk ‘truck driver’ and as the ‘ideological organisations’ published different statements on what the case was about. The ‘robbers’ decided to try and justify stealing the laboratory supplies by the unethical nature of their intended use and by the great indignation human cloning caused in the robbers’ very religious minds (at the trial the robbers’ attorney claimed her clients were unaccountable).

The party groups worked hard and were extremely motivated. It was clear that a role and unlimited possibly relevant law were great incentives. The results of all the legal research and plotting could be seen at the settlement negotiations and trial. Surprisingly, the mediator group, which highlighted the costs and unpredictability of trials, managed to get several parties to settle their damages disputes. The judge and prosecutor groups had a significant role in the organisation of the trial but regardless of the evident pressure, the trial was very professional and a judgment on the criminal charges was reached. The ‘human cloning professor’ who lied at the trial avoided criminal responsibility, even though one could tell that judges pondered whether his actions were in accordance with law and/or ethics.

Dealing with values, ethical issues and potential contradictions of law and ethics is something that is not in the core of legal education but occupies an essential role in being a lawyer. A case simulation like this provides concrete dilemmas where the scale of law and ethics opens from a practical perspective.

On the course, the ‘non-profit organisations’ provided the other parties information of the ethical background of law on experimenting on humans and cloning as well as examples of ways in which ‘erroneous’ legal treatment of the issue could lead to questionable results. The connections to politics were also visible. The ‘pro-cloning organisation’ collected names for a citizens’ initiative aiming at allowing cloning in Finland. In the Finnish political discussion, including same-sex marriage in the Marriage Act has been a hot topic for some time and a citizens’ initiative campaign named ‘I do in 2013’ (‘Tahdon 2013’) has been a central element in the discussion. Now the students and teachers saw the launch of the fictive campaign ‘I do want to clone in 2014’ (‘Tahdon kloonata 2014’). Generally, the students seemed to find value-related legal argumentation challenging but intriguing. From the point of view of the future of legal education, it may be noted that in the face of constantly increasing legal rules and sources for them, practicing balancing and evaluation of meta-elements of law should be actively focused on. The students may be coached in the methods of legal analysis even though we cannot predict the future whole of relevant substantive law.[2]

The legal sources relevant for the case were, in addition to national ones, transnational and sources from other jurisdictions, used comparatively. Moreover, the course may be described as trilingual as the literature and mini lectures included materials in Finnish, English and Swedish, and one of the parties to the case ‘did not understand or speak Finnish’. Being caught in constant legal translation is a common situation for the lawyers of today but the students do not necessarily face similar challenges in their studies. Case simulation, possibly with even further language twists, offers one way to practice dealing with multilingualism.

Finally

Finding relevant elements for legal argumentation, being convincing and clear in one’s statements, as well as listening to others, are central abilities for any lawyer. One of the major lessons from a case simulation course is that these as well as many other things may be rehearsed while learning on the substance of law. Moreover, methods of analysing and arguing on the basis of law could be regarded even more important than the substantive law itself. Learning by doing is, as is increasingly known at law schools, and very well known at the Maastricht Faculty, an important part of legal education. The experiences from case simulation suggest that adding the format to curricula or actively considering ways to train argumentation and related skills is recommendable.


[1] The author has been involved in planning and developing the course since the very beginning.

[2] As to the future and purpose of legal education, see also What does it mean to study law in the 21st century? by Catalina Goanta on 2 Apr 2014 on this blog.

 

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