Cameras in court – again

Posted on 12th Nov 2011 in Reviews

Reality courtroom TV may not be generally available in this jurisdiction, but there’s no shortage of the fictional variety in the schedules this autumn.

In the Matter of The Jury [2011] ITV 1

The current hearings (or viewings) began with a claim to seriousness by the primary commercial broadcaster, ITV, who dedicated their precious nine-o’clock slot to a somewhat ploddingly didactic mini-series, The Jury. This five-day case set in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey told the story of a murder trial as seen through the eyes of the disparate bunch of ordinary people who normally make up a jury. The trial had the added spice of being a re-trial, ordered by the Court of Appeal after quashing the defendant’s original conviction.

The cast includes Julie Walters (left) playing defence barrister Emma Watts QC, and Roger Allam as counsel for the Crown.

To emphasise the point that anyone can (and ought to be) a juror, those chosen included an autistic boy who had just turned 18 (the minimum age — and as it happens the age at which this blogger sat on a jury, shortly after that minimum age was set); a refugee from Somalia en route for the Land of the Free (and wall to wall Court TV); a nice man with a doctorate who lived with his mum and was too naive to notice that he was not only being led up the garden path romantically but tampered with in a more forensic sense; a lonely Russian housewife; a business woman who was actually impersonating another business woman (who was far too busy to perform her democratic duty); a nice elderly man who represented the soul of Old Fashioned British Decency; and so forth.

Trouble was, we spent so much time following the individual stories of these individual jurors, that there was hardly any time to watch the trial itself. As a result viewers couldn’t have seen enough of the evidence to make up their own minds as to the guilt or otherwise of the defendant. Instead, the trial itself functioned mainly as a linking narrative or frame for the individual jurors’ tales. Some of these had tangential relevance to the proceedings: the most obvious being the experiences of a lonely Russian housewife whose husband was always travelling on business, and who sought solace though the listings of an online dating agency which just happened to be the same online dating agency as the defendant had used to meet the victims of the killings with which he had been charged. The nice man’s supposedly romantic encounter with a woman who had sat on the original jury, and who appeared to be trying to influence the second verdict, was also relevant.

Other strands seemed to have the purpose of reminding viewers that, no, you are not supposed to research the case on the internet; and no, you should not discuss the case with anyone else, even the juror whom you’re impersonating; and no, you should not communicate with the defendant himself, or enter into correspondence with him (though you may, if you wish, pray for him).

But the stuff about the Somalian refugee, and the civil war horrorshow which he had escaped from, seemed designed mainly to give British viewers a nice smug warm feeling about how lucky we all are to live in a place where the Rule of Law is, if not perfect, sufficiently reliable to be taken for granted. Just to labour the point, there was a running gag about a government minister wanting to abolish trial by jury.

For a recent case on jury tampering, see Regina v Twomey (No 2) [2011] 1 WLR 1681 On a disabled juror: In re Osman (Practice Note) [1995] 1 WLR 1327 On misconduct during deliberations: Regina v Smith (Patrick) [2005] 1 WLR 704 and the cases referred to therein.

In the Matter of Garrow’s Law (No 3) [2011] BBC 1 If that was now, this was then. The next case to be listed in the Court of Public Opinion was the third series of the BBC’s historical drama about the pioneering criminal defence lawyer, William Garrow. Set in the 18th century, Garrow’s Law is full of bonnets, breeches, horse-drawn carriages and all the spit’n’sawdust of period authenticity; but as in the earlier series, the budget has not extended to the legal profession, which still seems to feature just one attorney (John Southouse), one defence barrister (Garrow himself), one prosecuting counsel (Silvester), and one judge (Sir Francis Buller).

Garrow is now even more deeply entangled in the affairs of (and his affair with) the now estranged wife of the politician Sir Arthur Hill. This provides love interest and distraction for those less interested in the legal issues (such as the defence of insanity) raised by the cases taken on by Garrow. Though the series may take some poetic liberties with historical fact (not all of these cases were actually fought by Garrow himself), it must be praised for not dumbing things down in the way ITV seems to think it has to.

Still, it would be nice if you occasionally saw them looking up the law in, say, a law report. Or, more to the point, if you saw a law reporter writing up these landmark cases, for they were indeed reported. The first episode concerns the case of James Hadfield, charged with high treason after attempting to assassinate King George III, for whom a plea of insanity was raised. Although the case pre-dates the foundation of the ICLR, it was reported in the State Trials series (Hadfield’s Case (1800) 27 StTr 1281) and is referred to in some detail by Lawton LJ giving judgment in Regina v Sullivan [1984] AC 156, 163.

The plea of insanity was for Hadfield, by the way, not the king, though the ambiguity was ironic. Garrow’s Law continues, Sunday nights at 9pm on BBC 1.