Richard Murtagh, 27 June 2013
The Open University was my perfect gateway to the law.
One day, at the age of six, I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in my right leg. This culminated in complete amputation following seven years of treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiotherapy and more than sixty operations. All of this was a lot for a child to endure, but once the decision had been made to remove my leg, I was soon able to rejoin my friends at a Birmingham secondary school.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the years spent in hospital had disrupted my education. Whilst I seemed to have a knack for English, I struggled with most other subjects. I left school in 1997 with four GCSE passes. Most of my friends continued into higher education, but I went straight to work for the transport company at which I had spent my work experience placement. This was a position of high responsibility for a person of my young age, and it boosted my confidence in the years which followed.
I first became interested in law in 2005, when my mum received a parking ticket that was blatantly unfair. I drafted a letter on her behalf which resulted in the ticket being quashed. Looking back, it seems like such a minor thing, but at the time, I had opposed the might of Birmingham City Council... and won! Suffice to say, I was suddenly quite curious about becoming a lawyer for a living.
The Open University was my perfect gateway to the law. An O.U. law degree can be taken part-time, allowing law students to earn while they learn - which helps to avoid debt. For my part, I had already re-taken some GCSEs by distance-learning (which involves coursework being sent and returned via e-mail), so I felt ready for the challenge of undertaking a degree in this way. End-of-year exams had to be taken at an exam centre, of course, but studying hard at home ensured that I was ready on exam days.
I graduated from the O.U. within six years, achieving Upper Second-Class Honours. And I was fortunate to obtain fantastic legal work experience during this time, taking my books “on the road” to Mississippi’s death row (amongst other places), where I was able to assist real lawyers with real cases. This precious experience served to further boost my confidence, and it entrenched within my heart a passion for human rights work.
Today, I am half-way through a Masters Degree in International Law and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham, and I plan to train as a barrister when this is complete.
Barristers are required to be excellent public speakers (especially in court), and one of the ways that aspiring barristers can practice this skill is by taking part in “mooting” whilst at university. A moot is a type of mock trial. Law students pretend to be barristers by presenting a legal argument to a judge in a typical courtroom setting - with two teams, each representing a fictitious client in a dispute. The judge (who is often a real judge!) will listen to arguments from both sides and decide which team was best.
Last week, I participated in the ‘UKELA’ National Mooting Competition with fellow student, Ben Leb. We travelled to London to represent the University of Birmingham, and had to compete against teams from other universities. We got through to the final and then had to present an argument to Lord Carnwath of the UK Supreme Court, which is the highest court in our land. So, the pressure was most definitely on! However, having prepared well at home (as the Open University teaches), we were able to cope well with His Lordship’s questions - and the victory was ours. It felt incredible being able to bring the trophy home to Birmingham, but I could never have done it without the Open University.
And so, my journey towards the Bar goes on. But whatever may happen in future, one thing is for certain...I’ve come a long way since that parking ticket!