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With all due respect: It's a crime

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2014 88 (03) LIJ, p.83

As portrayed on television, courtrooms and lawyer’s offices are hotbeds of intrigue, drama and excitement. Your correspondent can imagine weary lawyers throwing a slipper at the screen. The insatiable appetite for legal dramas, particularly the American variety, means that viewers are fed a steady diet of wildly inaccurate portrayals of both the law and its practitioners.

Down the years television shows like Perry Mason, LA Law and Law and Order may have been entertaining but alas they were about as accurate as the proverbial two bob watch.

Closer to home, Richard Roxburgh’s character, Cleaver Greene in ABC TV’s Rake is apparently based on a real barrister but his colourful antics are highly exaggerated and the courtoom scenes revved up for dramatic effect. In Crownies none of the lawyers are denied a quirk, a major character defect or complex love life.

Even Rumpole of the Bailey, which was at least written by an eminent QC, at times took liberties with the English legal system.

It must come as a severe shock to the uninformed juror to learn that barristers don’t open and close their cases with pithy statements laced with wry commentary and Shakespearian quotes that last no more than a couple of minutes. Or that lawyers don’t behave like Ally McBeal, Matlock or Petrocelli.

Hollywood’s “crimes against the legal system” are almost as bad as the inaccuracies in biographies and historical dramas. Who could forget the big budget 1969 movie Krakatoa, East of Java. A pity Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but hey, Tinseltown doesn’t worry about mixing up the cardinal points of the compass. In Braveheart Mel Gibson’s Scottish warrior William Wallace has an affair with Princess Isabella of France, who historically, was three years old at the time. He fights with a woad-painted face, a thousand years too late and in a tartan kilt, 500 years too early. Perhaps the famous quote should have been “they can take away our lives but they can never take away our freedom . . . to completely rewrite history”.

Recently, the American Bar Association voted for the best legal movies of all time. It was little surprise that To Kill a Mockingbird came out on top. It would be hard to argue with others in the top 10, including such classics as 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, Witness for the Prosecution and Judgment at Nuremberg.

Even those top shelf movies suffer from legal abominations.

If a juror was tempted to mimic Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men they might find themselves locked up for contempt of court. Jurors are warned at the start of a trial they should not act as detectives. Buying a knife, identical to the alleged murder weapon, as Fonda did, would lead to an aborted trial and worse for the juror.

In the less-feted movie, Double Jeopardy, Ashley Judd’s character is convicted of killing her husband, who has faked his death to gain custody of their son, run off with her best friend and access an insurance policy. When the Judd character is released from jail she is advised by a fictional lawyer she can track down her husband and murder him because she can’t be convicted of the same crime twice. Wrong. It’s a new crime in a new place and double jeopardy does not apply.

Maybe she should have consulted a real lawyer.

Enjoy laughing at the failings, foibles and faux pas of others? Of course you do. Then why not contribute to WADR? By email to, by fax on 9607 9451 or by mail C/- LIJ, 470 Bourke Street, Melbourne 3000.


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