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The Media vs Law: Is the law over-dramatised?

Having had many conversations with friends outside of the legal sphere over the past few years, it is apparent that the law is portrayed in a very particular manner by the media - be it film, tv series, daytime show or documentary. In this piece, I divert my attention from current legal affairs, and explore the place that law has in mainstream entertainment.

The law is becoming ever present in mainstream media, which has no doubt been accelerated by the development of smartphones, tablets and the ability to watch and record television shows whilst on the go. It follows that due to the higher accessibility of such media, there are more viewers than there used to be... But, are the viewers being given a realistic view of what the world of law is like? Or are they merely being sucked into a false reality?

Most recently, a documentary covering a fictitious case called "Murder in the family" was aired by Channel 4 in order to understand just how the jury system operates within the UK jurisdiction - I certainly do recommend having a watch of this six part series. Whilst remaining informative throughout the duration of the first five of the six episodes, the last episode became too geared towards ratcheting the tension for the finale. Despite that, the documentary was a success in highlighting the issues that the criminal legal system faces. One particular issue was how the perception of the jury with regards to: the testimony of witnesses, the evidence presented before them, but more worryingly, the perception they had of the defendant(s) in a particular case. It is commonly accepted that a jury should remain impartial and objective. They should put any of their personal biases aside. This documentary outlines that many jurors do the opposite. Many in that case relied on 'gut instinct' that the accused either committed the crime or did not commit the crime. This caused obvious tensions during deliberations, but highlights the more fundamental issues with human nature and decision making - that of being subjectively biased based on one's own experiences, prejudices and views, and as a result, unable to view evidence objectively. It also begs the question: how do we remedy this? Do we overhaul the jury system? Can we ever remove such a flaw to create a perfect system? One could make the argument that the answer to this is likely to be a resounding no, as it would require an attack on human nature and the way that we are brought up.

I feel that this is best contrasted with 'reality shows', where shows such as Judge Rinder and Judge Judy have been around for some time. In these shows, a 'court' presides over the issues brought before it. Whilst it is clear that this is only for entertainment purposes, this runs many risks. Some viewers may actually believe that they are witnessing something on par with legal proceedings in a real court of law. It further fuels the disconnect between the general public and the legal profession, particularly if they adopt this perception of the legal sphere. The realities of the legal profession are a stark contrast to this, and the shock that many people may experience when observing real legal proceedings are heightened. The argument could be made that these shows can be seen to make a mockery of the legal system, and the proceedings which are often of crucial importance to those involved. Whilst legitimate cases would not make good entertainment, owing to their complexity, there needs to be some form of education into what to expect from the legal system, or how it works at the very least.

Fictional TV shows, such as: Suits, Law & Order and Perry Mason, whilst having some element of truth to them, are also pretty outlandish to the profession and tend to generate stereotypes around the law. It is clear that the structures of trials are correct in these matters. It is the content that we are concerned with here. For example, a ruthless cross-examination of a key witness actually very rarely results in them capitulating at the perfect time (if at all) when facing questions. It is highly unlikely that someone, having been dragged to court, will change their story so fundamentally. The issue with this is that the subtlety of questioning within the English legal system falls to the way side, and the hours of preparation in terms of questioning is cast aside as it's unlikely to make "good viewing". Furthermore, in the English & Welsh jurisdiction, disclosure of documents is usually required. This is fundamental as it allows each party to know the case against them, and thus forwards the right to a fair trial as enshrined by Article 6 of European Convention of Human Rights. In defence of these TV shows, however, (and perhaps using Law & Order as a good reference point) in some cases, they do occasionally portray a realistic set of issues that occur within a trial.

Whilst in my experience, films regarding lawyers do tend to take a very different approach to the legal system. There are a number such as: The Lincoln Lawyer (Matthew McConaughey), The Firm (Tom Cruise) and The Judge (Robert Downey Jr.) which focus on the profession. The former focuses on issues regarding confidentiality between a lawyer and their client (in the jurisdiction of the US) and whether a lawyer is ever in a position to disclose confidential information in order for justice to be done. Such instances may occur more than one would appreciate, although maybe not in as severe circumstances (an accusation of murder). The latter focuses on particular issues regarding difficult witnesses, such as defendants who do not want to disclose medical conditions to support their case out of a sense of hubristic pride. What does a lawyer do in those cases? Is a lawyer ever allowed to override their client's wishes? The answer in the English and Welsh jurisdiction is a resounding no. Barristers are required by the BSB handbook to act in a certain manner, and such an exercise of discretion would contravene the regulatory rules.

In sum, the current position is clearly unsatisfactory. The media must make better efforts to at least educate their viewers accurately with regards to the law and how it operates within a system and society as a whole.

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