Legal dramas have been a mainstay of the British screen for
a number of years. From Rumpole of the Bailey and Blind Justice
through to Judge John Deed and Kavanagh QC, there’s been no
shortage of legal scenes to keep us entertained. But, how much emphasis
should we place on these and other media representations? Here,
barrister Paul Dockery, of 18 St John Street Chambers, talks about
the dangers of relying on television shows to shape our legal knowledge.
The legal landscape, as shaped by the media
Two out of three jurors do not understand the legal directions given
to them by judges, according to a report prepared for the Ministry
of Justice. This study, conducted by University College London (UCL),
looked at more than 68,000 verdicts over a period of two years to
ascertain the workings of jury rooms. When its findings were revealed
last month, the media was rife with calls for changes to the Contempt
of Court Act and theories on how much jurors were open to influence
from the media.
second finding from the report which drew the most gasps was the
news jurors frequently rely on internet research to increase their
knowledge of cases which they are sitting on. This can lead to serious
risk of miscarriage of justice. In 2008 alone, three juries were
discharged from crown court trials because of ‘inappropriate
use’ of the internet. This has led to a call for jurors to
be given more clarity and guidance from judges in order to reach
a decision but the report’s author, Professor Cheryl Thomas,
said the jury system is not failing in its duty. Juries are operating
efficiently, but need further assistance.
juries are not receiving guidance in court, where are they seeking
– the route to contempt
evolution of the internet and access to 24-hour breaking headlines
has changed the way we consume news. Gone are the days of buying
a morning paper to find out what’s happening at home and further
afield. Now, there’s every chance we have heard the day’s
lead stories several times before leaving the house, whether it’s
waking up to the radio headlines, catching the breakfast news or
powering up your iPhone to access BBC’s breaking news as it
happens. With so many media channels at our disposal, it is little
wonder jurors are completing case research outside of court.
Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, raised concerns last year about
the rise of the ‘internet generation’ and how advanced
technology has altered our ability to gain information through listening.
He suggested, in time, the courts would need to adjust to accommodate
this new thirst for multimedia information, adding “If a generation
is going to arrive in the jury box totally unused to sitting and
listening but is using technology to gain the information it needs
to form a judgement, that changes the whole orality tradition.”
Lord Judge points out, we are now living in a world inextricably
linked with the Internet so it is not surprising jurors will reach
for answers online if they feel they are not being led appropriately
in the courtroom. This is a sign of the times but does have worrying
implications for future justice.
the jurors questioned as part of the UCL report, a number admitted
‘seeing’ internet copy but not actively seeking it.
This is understandable, when considering the extent of media coverage
for high-profile cases. It is inevitable jurors will encounter some
form of media commentary or analysis. It is impossible and unrealistic
to enforce an internet ban, but judges must remind jurors they should
only focus on evidence given in court.
traditional forms of media adhere to court rules when it comes to
reporting but the internet has opened the virtual world to entries
and opinion from other sources, such as bloggers.
legal education at school – the American way
lack of legal education which leaves jurors forced to return verdicts
without really understanding their directions from the judge is
catastrophic. This is not only a highly-pressured situation to face
but can also have devastating consequences for those whose fate
rests in the hands of jurors. How can we redress this balance and
ensure jurors have the legal nous to effectively make decisions
on what they hear in court, not what their outside research teaches
we need to go back to the grass roots of education and start teaching
children about the legal system from an early age. I’m not
suggesting we arrange trips out to Hammicks Legal Bookshops, but
we could learn a lesson from educational institutions Stateside.
schools include lessons on the US constitution and Bill of Rights
as part of their standard education programme. Pupils are taught
about the legal system through real examples of courtroom battles
and the historical struggle for fairness and equality. Viewing legal
proceedings from political and historical perspectives adds depth
to understanding and gives pupils examples of how the legal system
people from school age would ensure a basic understanding of how
the legal system works, regardless of whether they pursue a career
in the law. This would negate the need to seek answers from Google,
on simple basic legalities.
Small screen sends unclear messages
looked at the influence the internet has on a member of the public’s
legal understanding – both in terms of research and case coverage
– we must examine the role of television.
cases and legal proceedings are commonplace on TV. Programmes such
as This Life gained a cult following in the UK but it’s worth
considering how the accuracy of these portrayals can affect consumer
executive producer of ITV hit series Kavanagh QC, Ted Childs, has
happily admitted British dramas are not devoted to factual accuracy.
He said: “Television depictions of courtroom dramas are a
travesty of the truth. We press into an hour a process that should
last for several weeks.”
legal series Criminal Justice – which was written by a former
barrister - drew mixed opinions when it aired in 2008. Timothy Dutton
QC, chairman of the bar, said it should not be viewed as a true
representation, stating: “Criminal justice is not a game and
it is a travesty to suggest practitioners see it in that way.”
BBC’s Garrow’s Law: Tales from the Old Bailey was based
on barrister William Garrow. The programme was certainly entertaining
but again courted controversy over its lack of attention to legal
accuracy. Guardian columnist Marcel Berlins criticised the BBC for
including a wooden gavel in scenes – a prop not used in English
courts – among other inaccuracies.
inclusion of a gavel in courtroom scenes may seem a minor point,
but this is what viewers can interpret this as being truly representative
of legal proceedings. With the exception of those who have witnessed
a British court in action, the general public opinion of legal proceedings
is largely shaped by what we view in the media, in particular on
shows also cause confusion as they often favour the US judicial
system. With popularity of shows such as Boston Legal as well as
blockbuster interpretations of legal novels by authors such as John
Grisham, it is not surprising we view American courtroom scenes
as the universally accepted form of law. Often you can spot Americanisms
in British shows, showing research has been carried out on a system
which differs largely to ours.
British institutions like the BBC therefore have a vital role to
play in educating the masses, by providing accurate courtroom projections.
An opportunity to represent legal proceedings accurately should
not be ignored, as a means of education as well as entertainment.
legal advisor to Coronation Street, I work with the writers to ensure
their legal cases are accurate and legally realistic. I am questioned
when script meetings take place to advise on realistic outcomes
for court cases; such as whether a custodial sentence is likely.
became involved with the team after highlighting a number of legal
inaccuracies to the Street’s archivist. It’s reassuring
to see one of the UK’s best-loved programmes is talking steps
to ensure it is broadcasting accurate legal proceedings. This example
should be followed by all.
Realism should be future route
a legal specialist, it is easy to spot when writers have not consulted
professional advice when drafting scripts and directing performances.
When television acts as a frame of reference to viewers, it can
cause confusion if it is not realistic.
must take the findings of the UCL report on board and deal with
the root problem. Jurors cannot make balanced decisions in they
are not in full possession of the facts and legal understanding.
We must educate the public on our legal system to ensure miscarriages
of justice are not the final, disastrous result. If media is the
route to legal understanding for the general public, let’s
ensure we are presenting an accurate and true representation at
all times to make sure our judicial system and justice is more robust
for future generations.