The 2005 Asia-Pacific Regional round of the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition concluded yesterday. It’s been an extraordinarily memorable week for me, concluding months and months of work on a hypothetical problem by our team.
Day 0 Tuesday (12 April 05)
The Lachs Space Moot is one of the international mooting competitions to be held annually, along with the Jessup, Vis, ELSA, Pictet and Stetson moots. The original problem was released last August, and out of the thirty competing teams, twenty were able to make it to Sydney for the final stage of the competition: the oral rounds.
April 12 finally rolled around and our team, composed of Fiona, Shan-Ree, me and our coach, Jo, arrived at the offices of Gadens at 5.00pm for a teams briefing session.
It was interesting to see, for the first time, the other teams from countries around Asia Japan, China, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand and putting faces to our competitors. I suppose it was because the regionals were being held in Sydney that the competition didn’t feel very “international” in the leadup to the orals. However, as the teams started to pour into the Gadens foyer, the mix of cultures and accents of all the teams really started to make me feel excited. Twenty teams of law students from different legal systems and countries, all coming together to argue about what may be the most peculiar space law problem so far one about a busted up Space Elevator.
Unfortunately, competition rules required teams to be kept anonymous. We were told at the door that we were not to divulge to other teams what university we were from, and could only give our names and, rather unhelpfully, our team numbers. This made socialising somewhat problematic.
“Hi, where are you from?”
“Oh really, which university?”
“Um, I don’t think we’re meant to be able to say.”
It was a bit of a conversation killer.
The teams were highly multicultural. Being three Asians, our team was often amusingly mistaken for the Singaporean team. The Singaporean team, on the other hand, comprised one Chinese and two Indians, which apparently left the Indian teams confused. Basically, it was difficult to tell what country a team was from, let alone what university they came from, just by looking at them.
The way the oral rounds worked was that everyone would participate in the preliminary rounds. Each team would do four round robin moots before a panel of three judges. Two moots would be on the Applicant side, and two on the Respondent side. There were two speakers a side, with a total speaking time of 30 minutes per side freely allocated between the speakers. I had the first speaker Applicant role, Fee had the first speaker Respondent position, and Shan would be pulling double duty as second speaker for the Applicant and Respondent.
For each moot, teams had the opportunity to win up to 9 points. The team with the better written submissions (memorials) going in to the moot would be automatically awarded 3 points. Each judge then has an independent vote worth 2 points. At the end of the preliminaries, the points for all the teams would be tallied and the top 8 would progress through to a knockout phase, starting with the quarter-finals, using a tennis-style seeding system.
The preliminaries would be held over two days, in the boardrooms of three city law firms: Blake Dawson Waldron, Clayton Utz and Coudert Brothers.
After registering, we were given a pack with our mooting draw and the four memorials of the teams we were up against. We all tore into the pack, eager to see how other teams approached the problem and nervous to see if we had missed anything. Due to a late pull-out from one of the teams, the draw was such that four teams would have to do three moots on Wednesday and one on Thursday, instead of the usual two per day. Our team was one of these unfortunate teams. We were mooting at 11.00am, 3.00pm and 6.00pm on the Wednesday, and at 9.00am on the Thursday. We quickly left the briefing after the regional organiser, Ricky J. Lee, had finished his run down of the competition rules.
We made our way to a café and spent the evening trying to identify from the memorials which universities we would be up against the next day by analysing writing styles, the authorities cited, and even by smelling the paper! (“Yes, this one smells like Indian paper.”) We then stopped for a quick dinner at Oporto’s. I didn’t realise that it would be the last “decent” meal I would eat for the next four days.
Day 1 Wednesday
The morning of Wednesday was incredibly nerve-wracking. We would be arguing on the Respondent side first, which meant Fee and Shan were the first behind the lectern. We turned up to the plush offices of Clayton Utz to meet our first opponents, only to find we had been directed to the wrong courtroom. After moving, we were then kept waiting as the judges turned up 40 minutes late.
Even though teams were supposed to be anonymous, it didn’t take long to figure out who everyone was. Our first opponents were Sydney University. The moot was before an interesting bench. One judge was entirely silent through the whole thing, one judge occasionally interjected, and the middle judge (the President) was very aggressive, though engaging, in her questioning. The thing with moots in the preliminary rounds is that no one is told who has the better memorials, nor who won the moot. We thought it went well.
The next moot was in the afternoon at Coudert Brothers as Applicants against Flinders University. We grabbed lunch in the Wintergarden underneath Clayton Utz, but I could only manage to eat half of my sandwich before my appetite deserted me. While my stomach was no longer functioning, my bladder was working overtime and it seemed like I was visiting the toilet in regular 15 minute intervals.
In the lobby of the Coudert building, we passed by the Uni of Queensland team and realised that one of their mooters was actually our timekeeper for our morning moot. This was a problem given that we would be mooting UQ the next day on the Respondent side. And one of their mooters had basically heard our entire oral argument. We alerted the organiser, but unfortunately there was nothing that could be done to remedy the situation. There’s always controversy at mooting competitions, and we resolved not to make it into a big deal. These stuff ups occur occasionally, and you just have to deal with it as it happens.
The second moot was very non-energetic. I don’t know what it was, but our judges were suffering from some sort of afternoon post-lunch lethargy because they weren’t even looking at us and didn’t seem to be following our arguments. Nonetheless we learnt that it was important to keep up our own energy in our delivery, even if the judges weren’t engaged.
The third moot was at Blakes as Respondents, where we met our first international team an Indian team from one of the Calcutta universities. It was the first moot which our coach, Jo, had been able to turn up to, along with Sanjay, another lawyer who was of invaluable help to us in preparing for the competition. The moot room was in a small meeting room, and we were basically standing from across the table, perhaps two metres away from the judges. It was an enjoyable, tough moot. The judges asked really incisive, technical questions and were clearly following the arguments of both sides. The Indian team’s ability to think rapidly on their feet was amazing, although they ran into problems when their speed of speaking matched that of their thinking.
With my mooting duties over for the preliminaries, I got a bit of my appetite back and I think managed to finish off half a Pad Thai for dinner that night.
Day 2 Thursday
Thursday morning was our showdown with UQ. We were intimidated. It wasn’t so much that one of their team members had heard us speak, but because their memorials were very strong. They also had developed a bit of a reputation. The moot was at Clayton Utz and Fee was feeling extremely nervous. So nervous, in fact, that when we got to the floor where the moot courts were, she ran straight for the bathroom and promptly threw up the watermelon juice she’d been drinking. It turned out that, unknown to the rest of us, she had thrown up before the previous day’s moot as well!
We each have our own ways of coping with the stress and nerves that build exponentially before a moot starts. Shan likes to walk around and anxiously look through textbooks right up until the last minute. I tune out and sit there with my head in my hands looking very stressed. Fee throws up and rocks a little in her chair looking very ill. What ever the pre-match ritual was, all the nerves disappear when we start talking. It’s really weird.
You always hear about people throwing up before big events, but here I was witnessing it first hand. Fee delivered an amazing performance and there was no sign of the fact that she had just heaved her breakfast into a toilet bowl. I think good performances inspire other team members, and Shan rose to the occasion and came out firing. Despite eventually finding out we lost that moot to the strong UQ team, that was the best moot I had heard Shan and Fee in so far (including the practice moots).
The UQ and UNSW teams; View from the Pepin Court
With our four moots out of the way, we had the rest of the day to wait until the top 8 teams were announced at the Opera Bar. Fee and Shan went home to grab some sleep Not having to moot that day, I fulfilled the team’s timekeeping duties and time kept for an interesting moot between UTS and an Indian university. More interesting given the fact that while the second Applicant was being questioned on something the first Applicant said, the first Applicant stood up to give the answer which meant that both Applicant speakers were giving answers behind the lectern as the same time. That was pretty unprecedented as far as protocol goes.
I then retired to the Botanical Gardens and stretched out on one of the benches (yes, like a hobo) and went to sleep for about an hour.
That evening, the preliminary results were announced in reverse order. It was a nail-biter and we were shocked to find out that we had placed as high as second! The University of Auckland placed first, being undefeated throughout the prelims. The seeding saw us have another face off against Flinders University, who placed seventh. Having argued as Applicant the first time, we would be arguing as the Respondent this time around.
Day 3 Friday
That morning, Fee threw up again before the moot. We took that as a good sign, and had a decent moot. It was perhaps spoiled when one of the judge’s mobile phones went off in the middle of the oral submissions of Joe (the first speaker for Flinders). Instead of just switching off the phone, she unbelievably left the room to answer it, violating just about every moot protocol in the book.
We emerged with a win at 1.00pm where we found out that Singapore, Auckland and Hidayatullah universities were the other three semi-finalists. At 3.00pm, Singapore and Auckland would be facing off, and we were against Hidayatullah. Not having mooted Hidayatullah before, the allocation of who would be arguing as the Applicant and who as the Respondent went to a coin toss. Being the higher seeded team, we called heads and lost the toss. Predictably, Hidayatullah opted for the Respondent side. It was generally acknowledged throughout the competition that the Respondent side had a stronger legal argument, and all teams who won their coin toss were selecting the Respondent side (as we would have).
The semi-finals were perhaps the most stressful round of them all. We had little more than an hour to prepare. Flicking through Hidayatullah’s memorials, I started getting very worried when some novel arguments concerning environmental law (the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle) cropped up. I managed to eat a quarter of a sandwich that lunchtime. Meanwhile, Fee was happily tucking into a big juicy steak.
The moot that afternoon was fiercely competitive and incredibly stimulating. All three judges on the panel were exceptional, asking insightful questions of both sides, challenging us and clearly had legal knowledge (one was a Professor of International Law). Shan and I gave it our all. Hidayatullah had a marvellous first speaker and really engaged our legal arguments. In the end, we emerged with a victory. And then there were two. Us and the National University of Singapore. We again called the coin toss (heads) and again lost. Singapore elected to argue as Respondents.
It then dawned on us we had made the regional finals, progressing further than we had dreamed possible. The chance to go to Japan for the world finals was almost in reach. It was a surreal feeling. I was exhausted that evening. I passed out for an hour and woke up in a sweat. Shan and I went out to dinner (I ate about a quarter of a plate of fried rice) and pretty soon we were back into it, dissecting the Singaporean memorials and researching the heck out of counter-points, well aware they were doing the same.
Day 4 Saturday
The day of the finals had arrived and the venue was the Banco Court of the Supreme Court of NSW. I was incredibly honoured and excited that I had been given the opportunity to moot in a real courtroom. At the same time, I was incredibly nervous.
Ironically, I’m quite an introverted person. I never made a good debater and acting scares me. Actually, anything that requires performing in public scares me. But I love mooting. The great thing about mooting is that you face away from the audience. All that matters is the three judges sitting in front of you, and the same holds true even for the impressive Banco Court.
I knew we were in trouble about three minutes into my submission. I had been talking about a strict liability regime for ultrahazardous activities at international law, and I was suddenly blindsided by a blatantly irrelevant question from the judge about whether the Space Elevator was built for “peaceful purposes”. I tried to point out the irrelevancy, but he seemed fixated on the issue. Shan similarly copped a grilling over self-defence issues.
It was then Singapore’s turn. They stood up and gave an outstanding performance. Slick, weighted with authority and seamless. It didn’t come as a surprise when the judges most deservedly awarded the moot to them. Congratulations to Singapore and good luck for the world finals!
The UNSW and NUS teams; Team UNSW!
The end of competition dinner that night was really special. So many teams from so many countries. Some teams turned up in national dress. It was the first real chance in the competition to socialise with everyone in a relaxed environment. Dinner table conversation at one point naturally turned to space law issues and as geeky as it sounds, it was a unique and truly remarkable thing to hear 10 law students earnestly (and voluntarily) engaging in an in-depth conversation about space law and international law.
Apart from being the Asia-Pacific runners up, our team, representing the University of NSW, placed second in the memorials competition (UQ beat us by 0.3 of a mark!). More importantly, Shan won the Best Oralist award, placing first among a group of very talented advocates. Congratulations Shan!
The week left me more mentally exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life, but the experience is one which I will remember with fond memories for decades to come. I learnt so much, not just in terms of international law, but general things such as adapting to being in a team where each team member has different working styles (for example Shan is a last-minute type of person who will be scribbling on his oral notes right up until the last minute, and Fee and I are people who will finalise our notes on the night before), seeing how we each deal with stress and how we support each other as a team. It was also fun to be involved in something international. I can’t really put the feeling in to words, but it sort of put things into context and made me realise how large the world really is in an age where the Internet gives the illusion that the world is a small place. It’s not. To interact with people in other countries on an academic level in a discipline that is normally confined to domestic practice was amazing. I thank Shan, Fee, Jo and Sanjay for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of all of this.
If you’re a law student and ever get a chance to be involved in an international mooting competition, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Make no mistake that it’s a huge amount of work and to get the most out of it you will need to devote a lot of time to it and give it your all, but, barring being in a team with irreconcilable personality clashes, the experience will change you as a person for the better.