Law in the arts—an accurate representation?

The recent domestic violence storyline in the Archers which culminated in the stabbing of Rob Titchener by his wife Helen, generated extensive media comment about a whole range of topics connected to the plot, including the workings of the law. Guest blogger, David Allen Green of counsel and head of the litigation and media practices at Preiskel & Co, provides his take on the representation of law in the arts in general.

With the goings on in Ambridge shining a light on the law in the arts, how well do the arts do when portraying lawyers and the law? To what extent are liberties taken in pursuit of art?

Lawyers are often either the goodies or the baddies when portrayed in literature. On one hand you have Atticus Finch, Horace Rumpole, and so on. On the other hand you have Tulkinghorn and Jarndyce v Jarndyce. As for the law, it is no doubt the case that law fares as well, and as badly, as comparable activities—say police procedurals or hospital matters—in dramas and comedies. That is the nature of entertainment.

But there is something about the law which lends itself to drama especially. The trial process is a great framework for a story. There are natural tensions and potential turning points, and there can be a neat resolution at the trial’s completion. Any competent dramatist can write a good story about a trial. The best representations are when expectations are played about with—Twelve Angry Men, for example, is about a trial which you actually do not see but only hear about.

Which shows are the saints and sinners of accuracy of legal portrayal?

Most legal television is not realistic. Nobody would watch it if it was—hours sitting silently at desks or waiting to go into court make dull watching. And few lawyers in real life act like big-L ‘Lawyers’. You wouldn’t give them a second thought if you saw them on the train or in a coffee shop.

What are the risks of the use of artistic license when portraying the law in the arts?

The one problem with the use of artistic licence is that people often are confused or disappointed when they encounter the actual legal process. English judges don’t use gavels, for example, and nobody ever shouts ‘objection your honour’.

Who is the best fictional lawyer, and by best I mean, who would you hire?

One suspects that few fictional lawyers would survive a billable hour or a legal aid funded hearing. That said, you have to say Richard Fish (of Ally McBeal) would fit in easily at many City firms. And all the lawyers described by Charles Dickens were very well observed—you can tell he spent a lot of time with lawyers in practice.

And who is the worst lawyer or law firm ever portrayed and why?

Perry Mason and all the others who usually win their cases—the stuff of law is often more interesting when you are on the losing side.

As well as a practising lawyer, David is also an award-winning journalist. He writes for the Financial Times and his own ‘Jack of Kent’ blog.

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.


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