Monday, July 07, 2008

Lawyers would like media to censor portrayals of legal profession as crooked, dishonest

Oh the pain of it - seeing oneself and one's profession portrayed as a money grabbing crooked club .. is just too much for some it seems, as one journalist suggests the legal profession 'work more closely' with the media.

Television often portrays society as it is … perhaps the legal profession would like to clean up its image and infamy which provokes such distasteful portrayals of lawyers as ‘crooked’ ?

The Scotsman reports :

Jennifer Veitch: Rough justice for legal profession on television

By Jennifer Veitch

SO, HAVE you been hooked by the coverage of the trial of the year yet?
No, I'm not talking about the BBC's controversial drama series, Criminal Justice – more of that later – but the bringing-to-book of River City's arch-villain, Archie Buchanan.

Dedicated followers of recent shenanigans in Shieldinch will know that
Archie finally appeared in the dock last week, after being accused of embezzling funds from his clients.

For those who aren't soap aficionados, the dastardly Archie had planned to abscond with his lover Niamh – another crooked lawyer who had blackmailed him and prompted the embezzling – but was hit over the head by his mum, Liz, and dumped over a cliff by his wife Gina and her sister Eileen, only to pop up again at New Year claiming to have lost his memory, the ability to shave, and insisting that everyone call him "Douglas".

Still with me? Do keep up.

It remains to be seen whether Archie/Douglas will actually be sent to jail – his lawyer Charlie Houston (also crooked, of course) has tried his best to suggest that the firm's other partners, Fi Kydd (the recently deceased lesbian alcoholic) and Gerry McGrade (currently recovering from a cocaine-induced stroke) might have had their fingers in the sweetie jar.

So far, so ridiculous, you might think.

Yet the fact that all three solicitors in this fictional firm have had such a raw deal from the River City scriptwriters does beg the question: why are lawyers such a common inspiration for TV villains?

After all, it's not just the Scottish soap world that portrays the profession in a rather dim light. Viewers of EastEnders are probably still having nightmares about that scary solicitor Stella Crawford tormenting poor little Ben Mitchell.

No doubt it will soon be time for her bleach blonde boss, Ritchie Scott, to pop up yet again to save Ben's daddy, Phil, or his uncle Grant, from prison.

Earlier this year, Glenn Close portrayed the deliciously amoral litigator Patty Hewes in Damages, whose dastardly machinations prompted her rival to blow his brains out over her plush office carpet.

But it has taken last week's BBC drama series, Criminal Justice, to really touch a nerve with the legal profession.

The show's array of unethical practitioners, including the bitchy barrister Alison Slaughter, who bullies her hapless client, Ben Coulter, actually prompted the Bar Council to lodge a rather strongly worded complaint with the corporation.

Chairman Timothy Dutton QC said: "Naturally, some licence needs to be taken for dramatic purposes. But Criminal Justice goes too far. Criminal justice is not a game and it is a travesty to suggest that practitioners see it in that way."

It is perhaps fair to say that Dutton didn't find the show all that entertaining.

I have to say that even as a lowly law student, I have found that my smattering of knowledge about the legal systems of Scotland and England is beginning to ruin my enjoyment of televisual legal drama.

For example, at Archie's trial in last week's River City, his solicitor was wearing not only a wig, he was making an opening speech and addressing the judge, not the jury.

Of course you have to suspend your disbelief when watching soaps, but such jarring inaccuracies, which could easily have been checked, don't help.

When the public's perceptions of the legal system must be shaped by what they see on TV, can the profession do anything about it?

Perhaps lawyers could do more to influence what is being written for the small screen by improving the way that the profession communicates with the media and, by extension, the public.

For example, it is surely not beyond the professional bodies to club together to provide a website that explains – in plain English – how the different legal systems of the UK are structured and the basic legal procedures that are followed in the criminal and civil courts.

Scriptwriters, editors, journalists and anyone interested in the law could use it as an easy-to-follow resource.

And then there would be no excuse for Auntie's bloomers ruining our enjoyment of Archie getting his comeuppance.

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