A team of three third year law students from the Babeș-Bolyai Law School of Cluj-Napoca has participated in the European Human Rights Moot Court Competition held February 15-18 at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. With a lot of hard work and dedication, Marina Fortuna, Alexandros Bakos, and Sabrina Matei made it to the final and won the third place.
The Lawyr.it team contacted them and they accepted our kind invitation to share their unique experience with us. We also had the pleasure to talk to their coordinating teachers, Miss Cristina Tomuleț and Professor Radu Chiriță, whose impressions can be read in the following article. Enjoy the read!
The Lawyr.it team congratulates you on your performance. Participating and winning an award at an international competition implies hard work and dedication. We would be delighted if you could tell us about your experience at this contest. To start with, why Human Rights?
Marina: Thank you very much. We are thrilled by the fact that our colleagues and professors were very responsive to the news of our success and expressed their sincere congratulations to all of us and we would like to thank them once again on this occasion.
Why human rights? Because it is a sensitive subject, it is wearisome, it is difficult in some aspects, it requires tenacity and commitment, and as the words speak for themselves: it is human, it is about human and for human. Despite the fact that I am a law student, in fact the ‘rights’ aspect interested me less in this regard. At least, that’s how things were at the beginning.
Alexandros: First of all, thank you for your words and thank you for this opportunity!
Secondly, beyond the notoriety and attractiveness of such a concept lies a much more profound analysis. It is an analysis which must be made in order to find not only a solution to a conflict between state and individual, but likewise to a conflict between politics and standards of human rights which must be upheld. It even delves into questions of applied ethics (i.e. – the question of in vitro fertilization or the right to free speech as opposed to the efficient administration of justice). Additionally, I think that no single case resembles another. There is something novel, no matter how small, with every new judicial decision of the Court. That’s what constitutes its main challenge. There is no predetermined solution. And, as a student, I think that the field of human rights is one of the most important ones for the development of judicial reasoning, because of its constantly novel challenges.
As for the experience, although the academic aspect of it was challenging and rewarding, there was something more important that left me with a feeling of optimism. The people I have met were people who really believed in the evolution and application of this field. Against the backdrop of contemporary geopolitical problems, which could put this field under scrutiny, people acted as if this was only an obstacle which can be overcome and, thus, continue with the evolution of European society, in a parallel line with that of the human rights field.
Sabrina: Thank you very much! The field of Human Rights has been an area of interest for me after studying the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR) in the second year of my academic studies. What draws me the most to this particular branch of law is its originality as compared to the other domestic legal areas. The system of the Convention is a compact one, being engulfed in the bigger system of International Law. However, the ECHR extends its protective shield throughout the Member States of the Council of Europe and accomplishes its mission with the aid of the European Court for Human Rights (the ECtHR). This means the system of the Convention directly concerns the domestic law of each Member State, as the ECHR is directly applicable and the Court’s decisions regarding violations of rights and freedoms are compulsory for the States. All these features have made me perceive the field of Human Rights as a dynamic, enthralling and challenging one.
Lawyr.it: What drove you to participate in the Human Rights MCC?
Marina: I was driven by the inspiration and excitement to do something beyond the typical schoolwork of a student, something that would shift the mundane schedule and most importantly, something that could change certain aspects of myself, as a prospective professional in the field of law, as well as a human being. I believe this answer encompassed both the reasons why I wanted to participate in a moot and why I chose particularly the Human Rights MCC.
Alexandros: I think that one of the most rewarding experiences for a student, not only academic-wise, but also from a social and psychological point of view, is the participation in such competitions. It is a great exercise for a future practitioner, as well as an opportunity to evolve as a person. It gives insight into what kind of work ethic is needed in the field of law and it changes the perspective of a student, mostly prepared through theoretical work. That’s what determined me to participate in such a competition.
Sabrina: The challenge. I had not been acquainted with this HRMCC before learning about it from my team colleagues and our coach. At first, I became enthusiastic about participating after looking into the competition, but I wanted to keep my mind devoid of emotions when making the final decision. It was an important process of analysis for me because I knew that if I took this opportunity it would mean hard work and a great deal of prioritizing while juggling with my academic studies. I was driven by the subject matter, I liked the perspective of us being selected for the Oral Round in Strasbourg and I was not able to refuse the valuable, irreplaceable experience, regardless of what the result would have been.
Lawyr.it: It is said that the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. Could you tell us how you prepared for this contest, from the very start until the last round?
Marina: First and foremost, after having received the case, we have explored it and dug in the minor details, trying to clarify both the factual aspects, as well as the legal questions it posed. It took quite some time, because there were things that seemed unclear even after the seventh reading. Next, we gathered to share our views upon the case and had a few spicy debates regarding the way the case should be approached. When we finally outlined our strategy, we made two memorials: one for the Applicant, one for the Respondent, and finally, after we were through with our winter exams, we started to prepare for the oral rounds. As regards to this preparation, we would meet and speak in front of our coach or use the empty rooms in our faculty and the lectern that our professors (unfortunately) use very rarely, which we found actually very helpful for our rehearsals.
Alexandros: Oddly, it involves two very different stages of preparation. Firstly, there is the part when the written submissions are prepared. For this, research must be made – reading case-law, treaties, articles and everything which could provide relevant information - the case must be analysed and known very-well. Usually, this is the easier part of the two, where, through constant and sustained work, the written submissions should take the form imagined at the beginning. Secondly, there is the preparation for the oral proceedings part, if the team qualifies for it, which is much more difficult, at least from my point of view. Only then you notice aspects of the case that hadn’t been noticed before. You might even come to a point where your perception about the case takes a 180 degrees turn. Sometimes, it may get frustrating and you might think that the work you have done so far was in vain. However, after a while, you do clear your mind, you get a deeper understanding of the facts and you sort out the aspects of the oral proceedings – working on your speech, on your presentation, on your posture, on everything which could play a role in the jury awarding you and your team more points. It is, at the same time, a point where teamwork plays a large part. Juries within Moot Court Competitions tend to appreciate proper teamwork and even insist on it. And, in the end, right before pleading, you get nervous and start thinking about it and how to control it. But, in the end, you manage to clear your emotions from your head and start realizing how rewarding the experience actually is.
Sabrina: For a high-level competition I believe the key is an appropriate strategy. And thanks to our coach, Ms. Cristina Tomuleţ, ours was a successful one. This competition is divided into two phases: the Written Round and the Oral Round. Any team studying law in a European University may submit written conclusions regarding a specific case that is given by the organising committee. The case revolves around the Convention and the teams have to identify possible violations of human rights (for the Applicant submission) and to counterargument these alleged violations (for the Respondent Government’s submission).
We started preparing for the Written Phase in October and our first step was reading the case over and over until we could thoroughly grasp the facts. The second step was to identify which of the Articles of the ECHR applied to the case. We did this by meeting and by discussing ideas. Afterwards, there was the research stage. We read as much as we could on the subject, namely environmental matters in the case-law of the Court. It was a difficult task to set the next steps of our strategy as the Convention does not provide the right to a healthy environment, meaning we had to think out of the box, to study case-law and to understand how the Court applies the Convention in this area. We also sent Clarification Questions to the author of the case.
Next, we divided our work and set the next steps: we had to write the two submissions having the same general structure, that we established ourselves according to the Court’s specific procedure. We worked firstly on the Admissibility Section that is we debated in our submissions why the Court should/shouldn’t analyse the application. Then we worked on the Merits of the case, where we debated the violation of certain Articles of the ECHR (Articles 6 par. 1, 8, 9, 13).
We were informed that we had qualified for the Oral Round in January 2016. We started preparing for the next phase. This time, our work was even harder. The oral round entails not only knowledge of the case, but of the Court’s case-law in general. The skills required for pleading in front of an International Court are more than knowing the arguments by heart. We practised our public speaking skills, our knowledge of the Court’s protocol, our adaptability skills under pressure and we had to mold our submissions into legal pleadings. Two of the team members pleaded the Applicant’s part and two the Respondent’s part.
Lawyr.it: What were the main challenges that you had to face?
Marina: The biggest challenge for me, prior to the oral rounds, was collecting my thoughts and my determination a few days before our flight to change a substantial part of my 17-minutes speech, which I had to learn all over again. As to our experience in Strasbourg, my first speech was hte most challenging because I was really stressed about the judge’s questions, as this was the most unexpected part of the oral presentation.
Alexandros: Striking a fair balance between the work done for preparing for the competition, the work needed for your academic field and the time one spends doing leisure activity.
Sabrina: The main challenges were mostly linked to my lack of experience with International MCCs. For me it was mainly the lack of time that put me under pressure, as we had to deal with exams while preparing for the Oral Round. In the first phase I could say that finding the appropriate legal arguments was the biggest challenge. The case was tricky so we had to pay attention to maintain coherence and cohesion of arguments. But the real challenge for me was the Oral Round.
Another thing that is quite important when pleading is the speed of reaction to your opponent’s arguments. When pleading, we had to produce arguments on the spot, to answer a great deal of questions from the jury while trying to finish the pleading in the time allocated, to pay attention to the opponent, to use effective non-verbal communication with the jury and the opponent, to adapt our pleading on the spot.
All these were taken into account by the jury while assessing our performance. It was not only a test of human rights knowledge, but also an under-pressure test. The jury were very cutting when asking questions; they tried to trap us in order for us to make mistakes. We later found out at the end of each pleading that they did this on purpose. It was part of the game. But we learnt: from their feedback, from our feedback, from our coach’s feedback. We improved our performance each day.
Lawyr.it: How about your future plans regarding human rights? Do you consider a future career in human rights?
Marina: My dream is to pursue a career in international law and I would love it if working in the field of human rights would be part of it.
Alexandros: Yes, I certainly hope to get to have such a career. It goes hand-in-hand with international law and diplomacy, as regards my career objectives, considering that the human rights field is a sub-system of international law and that politics are deeply involved, as well.
Sabrina: I would like to become a judge, so the career I chose does certainly involve thorough knowledge of human rights. I believe that domestic law needs the innovation brought by the ECtHR, as citizens need the protection of the Convention to be put into action by national judges. They are the first enforcers of the Convention as a valuable instrument for safeguarding our fundamental rights and freedoms.
Lawyr.it: You represent examples of successful students. Could you give some piece of advice for all the students who are interested in human rights? What should they do in order to succeed in this area of law?
Marina: I encourage everyone to dream big and start small, step by step. Being in the field of human rights sounds fancy, but it is a challenging field, which requires much dedication. I think that this kind of commitment may be made and should be made by those who have a lot of enthusiasm and empathy, believe in a better world, believe in people, in their capacity for change, and finally yet importantly, are ready to fight quite the battle. If you are one of them, take chances and believe in your talent and your capacity to do a great job. What I have also learned during this experience is that we are offered a great education here, and that our minds work pretty much in the same way as the minds of people who study at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, or at least we have just the same tools at our disposal and we should use them wisely.
As a last remark, I would like to leave a message to all the students out there: whatever you do, be it in the field of human rights or any other field of law, do not close the doors that open in front of you and invest in the relationships that you are gifted with along the way, as they are one’s most valuable possessions.
Alexandros: Firstly, I think that it should be taken into consideration that luck played an important part in this success as well. We had caught some good days and we felt inspired in those days, which were considerable aspects as well. Secondly, what I realized is that Romanian students are very well-prepared, not only from the point of view of having large quantities of information, but ability-wise as well. They are taught how to think about the law and a lot of them do not see themselves for who they are. I think that the only piece of advice I could give them is just to go for such experiences. They have all the tools needed to succeed.
Sabrina: To dare. To step out of their comfort zone. To try and fail. To do it again. Success is not a finish line. When deciding to participate, my incentive was not success. It was the question: ‘Can I do it?’ I believe that if we only do things in the hope of being successful, we risk disappointment and frustration. A passionate person will always be successful. Because when you do what you love, it’s not the result that drives you to keep working. Quite the contrary. Failure is sometimes the better incentive. I’ve learnt success often comes to you when you don’t expect it. Probabilistically, we sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, due to a multitude of factors. So, we should keep working until success finds us. And when it does, we should just keep working.
Lawyr.it: How was the experience of coordinating a student team at such an important contest?
Cristina Tomuleț: It was challenging and rewarding. We began our work by meeting and discussing possible approaches to the case. During the next phase, after lots of research, the team members wrote the two submissions – one for the Government and one for the applicants. After sending the two submissions, we almost forgot about the contest because we did not expect to qualify for the final oral round. When we found out the good news, we kept asking ourselves if the organizers hadn’t made a mistake. Before going to Strasbourg, we started preparing for the oral round. I listened to the oral pleadings of the team members and made different suggestions with the aim of improving their public speaking abilities. The most important thing is that we had a lot of fun during the entire experience.
We left for Strasbourg not having a clue about what was going to happen there, but we embraced the adventure. The team had one debate match per day and I enjoyed watching them and writing down every positive or negative detail. After every match, we would go back to the hotel and discuss our strategies for the next day.
Advancing to the Quarter Finals and to the Semi Finals took us by surprise because we felt far more inexperienced than the other teams. One thing that we learned after our stay in Strasbourg is that idealising students from other European universities is wrong. Another important thing that I personally learned is that great things happen when you least expect and prepare for them. On these lines, I believe the main reason for our success was the fact that we were not obsessed with winning or rankings.
Lawyr.it: How did you notice the interest in human rights of the three students who represented BBU Law School?
Cristina Tomuleț: First of all, the initiative for participating in this competition was not mine. Marina Fortuna approached me last summer and asked me if I was willing to help her and Alexandros Bakos to prepare for the competition. I agreed and searched for another team member. I remembered Sabrina Matei from my workshops and asked her to join us. When we started working, I noticed that all three were really passionate about human rights and willing to give their best. I was very impressed by the fact that they prepared a lot on their own for the competition, not needing me to constantly check their progress. Their initiative and attitude throughout this process proved that they were genuinely interested in this competition.
Lawyr.it: How would you raise the students’ interest in human rights?
Cristina Tomuleț: I think students’ interest in human rights comes naturally, given the fact that this field is primarily concerned with the well-being of persons and cannot be approached from a purely legal point of view. During seminars, I often tell the stories behind various judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. I think hearing these stories makes students understand that law is real and can impact lives, both positively and negatively. The field of human rights is special because it often disregards law for the sake of human beings and this appeals to most students.
Lawyr.it: In your opinion, which is the cause of this high interest for human rights among students?
Radu Chiriță: I believe that the high interest of the students comes as a result of the fact that this field is more concrete for a student than for example the field of administrative law. It is easier to imagine and to mentally juggle with notions like the freedom of speech in the TV commercials, rather than with the suspension of the execution of a tax debt. This is a false imagine however, as in the professional life the level of excitement of the law branches becomes equal.
Lawyr.it: How does professor Chiriță see a good student?
Radu Chiriță: Certainly, a good student is not one with just the capacity of reproducing the lessons learnt as accurately as possible. Many times, the best professionals are not really the students who had the highest grades in schol. A good student is, in my opinion, one who succeeds in learning three things. Firstly, to apprehend not really the rules of law, but the principles that lie behind them and the functioning of a legal system. Secondly, one should have the creative capacity to imagine legal solutions for new problems. Thirdly, he is the one who manages to develop a sufficiently critic spirit and a curiosity-driven intelligence in order to get to the point where he questions everything and everyone, even the professor.
Lawyr.it: What would you advice those that are pursuing a career in human rights?
Radu Chiriță: I believe that everyone in the field of law pursues a career in human rights, because our role, as actors of the legal system and/or judicial system is to ensure the protection of the human rights for everybody. The lawyers and the judges have shown up when human rights have appeared, up until that point the world did fine without them. If someone wants to pursue a career only in the matter of human rights protection, then my advice would be to never forget the reason for which these are a part of the European civilisation, because the easiest thing is to use the law against justice.
This article was originally published in issue 4.2 of the magazine, which can be accessed here.