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Are inaccurate media portrayals of the UK legal system adding to juror confusion?

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.

The 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.

If juries are not receiving guidance in court, where are they seeking information?

Internet – the route to contempt

The 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.

The 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.”

As 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.

Of 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.

Most 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.

Strengthening legal education at school – the American way

A 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 them?

Perhaps 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.

American 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 operates.

Educating 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

Having 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.

Court 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 understanding.

The 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.”

The 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.”

The 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.

The 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 television.

Television 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.

As 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.

I 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

As 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.

We 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.





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