Four Weeks in Aberdeen

For the past four weeks, I taught a Comparative Crime and Punishment course at the University of Aberdeen. Teaching in the summer school was a very enjoyable and enriching experience for me and all of the students in the program. I know a lot of planning by University of Aberdeen staff and faculty, including Carol Lawie, Anne-Michelle Slater, Susan Stokeld, and many others, went into putting the summer session together, and it really showed. The sessions on law in the United Kingdom were very informative, whether the topics were violence reduction (in a talk by guest speaker Karyn McCluskey, the head of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit), the history of surveillance (in a lecture delivered by Dr. Philip Glover), or medical malpractice or the National Health Service (in discussions I sat in on as part of Prof. Diane Hoffmann’s Comparative Health Law class).

In the United States, I teach courses on civil procedure, contracts, capital punishment and international human rights law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Over the course of the summer session in Aberdeen, everyone in the program got an introduction to Scots law, U.K. penal practices, and the City of Aberdeen courtesy of the Lord Provost and local residents. We got to do everything from visit the Scottish Parliament and the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh to tour the new prison and prison museum in Peterhead. Seeing the new prison and the old prison facility side-by-side was a particularly eye-opening experience for the American law students in the program. And the trip to the new prison and the Peterhead Prison Museum sparked lots of conversations and debate about America’s correctional system.

The students in the Comparative Crime and Punishment course had the chance to research and write papers on topics of their choice. After learning about the Scottish legal system and the difference between American and Scottish sheriffs, a number of the students chose to explore and write about the differences between American law and Scots law. One student chose to write about Scotland’s unique “not proven” verdict (especially after hearing a poster presentation by a Ph.D. student at the University of Aberdeen who highlighted the contrast between 15-person juries in Scotland and 12-person juries in the U.S.). Another student chose to write about the differences between policing in Scottish cities and in Baltimore, while another decided to explore Scotland’s corroboration rule compared to American rules of evidence.

Scotland is a beautiful place, and like many of my students, I got a chance to see lots of historic sites during my stay. A visit to Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle was a particular highlight, and train, ferry, bus and taxi rides allowed me to experience the sights of Inverness and Urquhart Castle, the Isle of Skye and the Fairy Pools, and Glasgow’s impressive cathedral and city hall as well as its streetscapes. In Aberdeen itself, I really enjoyed spending time at the university’s impressive library and strolling through Stewart Park and St. Machar’s Cathedral. As part of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, which coincided with the summer course, I also got to see a wonder concert involving a joint performance by an Icelandic choir and a choral group from Glasgow.

My time in Aberdeen could not have been more fulfilling or rewarding. The study of comparative law allows students and faculty members alike to gain new perspectives, and by meeting and hearing from new people who are experts on another country’s laws and practices, the opportunity for learning is amplified and increased exponentially. A visit to the Tolbooth Museum in Aberdeen–formerly a seventh-century jail–reminded me and other students who paid a visit of just how far we’ve come since the Scottish Enlightenment, which we also discussed at length as part of my course. In-class student participation was tremendous, and a lot of that is attributable to the intellectual atmosphere created by the chance to study abroad.

The Scottish tradition of coffee, tea and snacks between classes made time for additional conversation, and it also made the exchange of ideas particularly sociable and fun. And the closing lunch, with a bagpipe performance by a member of the law faculty, turned out to be a perfect way to end the course of study. The food, drink and celebratory remarks capped off a near perfect summer, with the only glitch I experienced during my whole time in Aberdeen being a seagull swooping down and snatching a big bite of a ham-and-cheese sandwich I’d been nonchalantly eating as I walked along King Street after class one day. Now I know why a sign on a little eatery near Aberdeen’s Union Street reads “Beware the Seagulls”!

One of the many things we learned outside of the classroom is that Aberdeen’s ancient motto is “Bon Accord” (French for “Good Agreement”). The city’s official toast, in fact, is “Happy to meet, sorry to part, happy to meet again – Bon Accord!” I was extremely pleased to meet everyone in Aberdeen and it was hard to say goodbye, but I know that I’ll see everyone again soon. There is already talk of a reunion of summer school alums in the works. In the meantime, I’ll carry my fond memories of Aberdeen with me as I head into a new semester of teaching at the University of Baltimore and the Georgetown University Law Center.

John Bessler is an Associate Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author or editor of multiple books on capital punishment, including most recently The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2017) and Justice Stephen Breyer’s Against the Death Penalty (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2016).

2016 Graduation Address by Dr. Catherine Ng, considering Aberdeen graduate the Hon. Bertha Wilson

On Monday 13 June 2016 the University of Aberdeen LLB “class of 2016” graduated. This is the text of the Graduation Address by Dr. Catherine W. Ng at that occasion.

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are gathered here today to mark a very important milestone in the lives of our graduates. This is a good moment to take stock before we all march onto the beautiful lawn outside and enjoy some well-deserved celebrations with friends and families. I imagine that is the immediate short term plan for almost all our graduates here.

What then of the medium and long term plans? Many of you will be entering careers that you have prepared for at least in part during your time here at Aberdeen. Above all, my hope is that you will fulfil your potential as individuals unhindered by any preconceptions that you or others may hold about you. I hope that by keeping an open and inquiring mind, and by constantly challenging preconceptions, you will also see possibilities in others, and that you will help them to reach their potential too.

Reading law does train us to challenge preconceptions. When we study case law, statutes, and treaties and their applications and implications, we try to overcome preconceptions and figuratively step into the shoes of each of the parties in a litigious dispute, or the parties negotiating a piece of legislation or a treaty in order to appreciate their perspectives. We do this to try to understand their concerns and interests at stake, and to assess the way the law seeks to resolve their differences. It is important to look beyond the law to the communities, the individuals, and the lives that the law touches. These exposures through the law let us glimpse a vast and diverse range of human experiences and conditions.

It is also important to view these experiences and conditions with a sense of compassion, empathy, and an open and learning mind. Your experiences here at Aberdeen may illustrate the point. At the start of your time here, you all arrived from different backgrounds, stages and walks of life. Most of you had a common cause which I hope was to study law. Along the way, you made friends and supported one another through both happy times and challenging times. You celebrated one another’s birthdays away from home, and you comforted one another through essay deadlines and examination nerves. With compassion and empathy, you formed common bonds to help one another to step closer to achieving each individual’s potential. In time, some of your preconceptions and initial impressions of differences melted away as barriers. Rather often apparent differences became points of interest that broadened your horizons. Some of you may have already visited one another in your home towns or countries, or learned something about them from one another. Keeping an open mind and not shying away from differences let you broaden your perspectives to be open to new ideas and to adapt to new circumstances in our globalised world.

Laws too change because of new ideas and new circumstances. Above all, laws advance because of individuals who can realise their potential to effect change. Let me give you an example of how putting aside perceptions and preconceptions has allowed one of your predecessors to realise her potential. Back in 1944, a 20 year-old raised here in Old Aberdeen graduated with an MA degree from the University of Aberdeen. She married a clergyman and they moved to Canada in 1949. When she looked to apply for Law School admission in Canada in 1954, she was told instead to consider crocheting because law was a tough subject and not for dilettantes.[1] Now there is nothing wrong with crocheting.  It is worthwhile and honourable work. Hospitals appeal for crochet hats and blankets to keep premature and sick babies warm, to help save lives. My point here is simply about how perceptions and preconceptions could have limited potential. This Aberdeen graduate’s opportunity to read law could have been limited because of another’s perception of her as a clergyman’s wife who happened to have had some time on her hands at that point. This Aberdeen graduate’s vision for herself could have been limited because she was then that rarity as a woman applying to study law, and moreover as a mature student seeking to re-enter mainstream education at age 31. Undeterred, she applied, was accepted, and completed her LLB degree three years later.

Fast forward to 1982: this Aberdeen graduate, now the Hon. Bertha Wilson, was appointed as the first woman judge to serve on Canada’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada.  Also in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was enacted. She and her fellow judges were setting ground-breaking constitutional precedents on human rights issues. As a pioneering woman judge, she was pressed on the questions of how far she as a judge was or should be representing the voice of Canadian women. She responded by challenging the perception of the impartiality of judges as individuals and raised the question of whether men and women with their broadly diverse experiences would bring different perspectives to certain legal issues.[2] Still challenging perceptions, you see?!  Bertha Wilson served on the Supreme Court of Canada until her retirement in 1991.[3]  The University of Aberdeen recognised her achievements and awarded her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, in 1989. Whether or not one agrees with her views, by her having shattered some of the stereotypes about the role of women, the late Bertha Wilson opened the vision for other Canadians to realise their potential.

Today in 2016, at the University of Aberdeen, our graduates are awarded their MA (Arts and Social Sciences), PhD, and LLB degrees. Seeing others take steps to realise their potential is one of the most gratifying experiences that life offers. We are on stage now to help highlight the achievements of our graduates. Graduates, it is indeed an extraordinary privilege to see you walk across the stage to mark these achievements. Later, as we join you on the beautiful lawn outside, I hope we can meet each other on that proverbial ‘even playing field’. Life is never even among individuals. We all carry with us different backgrounds and experiences. Life is unpredictable, and not all of it within our control.  Each one of us will be different tomorrow from today in our own individual ways. But what may allow individuals to be even is in the way we keep our minds open to be compassionate and to learn from one another, to be informed by diversity and not to prejudge differences, to be edified by the past and yet never be defined by it, and so to pioneer – take chances on ourselves and on others too.

I hope that during your time at Aberdeen, you have not only gained knowledge and understanding of the law, but also perspectives, life experiences, and friendships which you will cherish for the rest of your lives, which will help you realise your potential, and which you will in turn use to help others to realise theirs. I hope that you will lead fulfilling lives, and that you will continue to challenge perceptions and preconceptions.

On behalf of us all, our warmest congratulations to you, our graduates. Please do keep in touch with us through our alumni networks, and do keep us broadening one another’s horizons.

Thank you.

LLB Graduation 2016
Students on the aforementioned beautiful lawn enjoying some well-deserved celebrations with friends and families.

References

[1] Ellen Anderson, Judging Bertha Wilson – law as large as life (U Toronto Press 2001) 3 – 38

[2] Bertha Wilson, ‘Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference?’ (1990) 28(3) Osgoode Hall LJ 507

[3] Supreme Court of Canada, ‘The Honourable Bertha Wilson’ <http://www.scc-csc.ca/court-cour/judges-juges/bio-eng.aspx?id=bertha-wilson>  accessed 4 August 2016

Mooting Society: 2015-16 Review

This blog was contributed by the University of Aberdeen Mooting Society.

This year the Mooting Society has gone from strength to strength. A promising cadre of first years were able to hone their talents in the annual first year competition, whilst increased participation in our main faculty and criminal law competitions enabled many students to participate in mooting for the first time.

Aberdeen Moot
Left to right: Xeni Kisinova, Michael McDaniel, Joanne Smith, Anna Black

Internal competitions form a key part of the mooting programme, but they also play a role in selecting participants for external events.This year the Society decided to introduce another element to the selection process, holding an open audition for some of our external moots. As a result, Daniel Rehda, a mature student on the accelerated law degree, was able to participate in a moot held at the Supreme Court in London in front of Lord Sumption. Not only was this a fantastic experience for all involved, but Lord Sumption’s feedback was exceptionally helpful and thorough and will no doubt help all participants in any future court or indeed public speaking environment.

At the UK Supreme Court
L-R: Emma Macmillan, Anna Black, Daniel Rehda, Lord Sumption, Simon Boendermaker

The Society also participated in the UK Law Students Association and Alexander Stone mooting competitions, with Bethany Ingham and Guillaume Kitumaini competing in the former and Simon Boendermaker and Emma Macmillan in the latter. Whilst both sides were eventually bested after proceeding deep into each competition, the experience gained by all four mooters will serve them well in further competitions and in their legal careers.

Dundee
(L to R): The late Lord Jones, Bethany Ingham, Alistair McDermid. (The Hon. Lord Jones, a Senator of the College of Justice, sadly passed away earlier this month.)

The high note of our external competitions saw the Society taking part in Dundee University’s inaugural Inter Varsity moot; competing against the hosts, RGU and Edinburgh. Aberdeen entered two teams, and an unfortunate draw meant both Aberdeen teams faced each other in the semi-finals. Alistair McDermid and Bethany Ingham emerged victorious from that clash, before defeating the hosts to take the shield up the A90 to Aberdeen.

The Society has now held its AGM and the handover to the new committee has been completed. The new committee will press on with plans for various events such as the Times 2TG moot, UKLSA and Jessup moots. We are looking forward to holding auditions again in September for all potential new participants, not to mention the annual staff v student moot!

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the year is complete for the Society. There is still the annual Granite City moot at 18:00 on Tuesday 29 March at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, where teams from Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University will face each other before Sheriff Stirling. Aberdeen will be looking to retain their crown for a third consecutive year: everyone is warmly invited to attend to see if they can do so and to share a glass of wine afterwards at a reception sponsored by the law firm Brodies LLP.