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Public Trials (LAWS30024)

Undergraduate level 3Points: 12.5On Campus (Parkville)

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Year of offer2019
Subject levelUndergraduate Level 3
Subject codeLAWS30024
Semester 2
FeesSubject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date

Trials play an important role in the drama of public life. Their study enables a contextual exploration of how law is constructed and performed. The guiding questions of this subject are: what happens in the trial? And what does the trial represent for the political community within which it takes place? The subject explores these questions through a range of high profile or exemplary trials in state and commonwealth, national and international, jurisdictions.

The key themes addressed through the in-depth study of public trials in this subject are:

  • The use of trials to respond to situations of injustice and social instability;
  • How trials generate stories of nationhood and political identity;
  • The role of trials in reforming law and transforming the event to which they respond; and
  • What the drama of the specific trial reveals about the community in which it is staged.

After introducing the nature of public trials - trials of the century, political trials, cause celebre - the subject turns to a consideration of exemplary trials, both contemporary and historical, from various jurisdictions. An indicative sample includes the following famous trials. These will be taught by scholars with specific expertise on the particular trial and their legal question.

  • The Eichmann Trial (Jerusalem 1961);
  • The Communist Party Case (Melbourne 1950-1951);
  • The Ronald Ryan case (death penalty);
  • Hindmarsh Island Bridge case (Canberra 1997);
  • Lindy Chamberlain trials (1981-1983);
  • The Tampa case (Ruddock v Vardarlis, 2001);
  • Nuclear Weapons case, International Court of Justice,1993-1996;
  • Tasmanian Dams case, 1983;
  • Nulyrimma and Thompson (Australian genocide case), 1999;
  • The Mabo (No 2) case, 1992;
  • Brown v Board of Education, USA, 1954;
  • Re A (the conjoined twins case), UK, 2001;
  • The David Hicks Military Commission hearing, 2007;
  • Palm Island death in custody coronial inquiries and trial, 2004-2007; and
  • OJ Simpson trials (criminal and civil), 1995-2007.

Intended learning outcomes

A student who has successfully completed this subject should have an understanding of the role of legal trials in political and public life, and the lessons that can be drawn about law, politics and justice. Specifically, the student will be able to reflect on and evaluate:

  • How trials work as forms of political story-telling;
  • The historical transformation of law through trials;
  • The significance of law for social change and social activism; and
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to law.

In addition, a student will have obtained:

  • An appreciation of the distinctive procedure and function of courts;
  • A transnational and comparative understanding of the trial;
  • In depth knowledge of at least one public trial and to analyse public trials from a variety of perspectives; and
  • The capacity to conduct independent research about law and its relation to historical, social and political context.

Generic skills

On completion of the subject the student should have:

  • Capacity for self-directed learning, specifically the ability to plan work and use time effectively;
  • Cognitive and analytical skills;
  • Ability to speak about complex ideas in a clear and cogent manner;
  • An awareness of diversity and plurality;
  • Write essays which develop structured argumentation; and
  • Capacity to judge the worth of their own arguments.

Last updated: 11 October 2019