12 January 2013

"I'm issuing an injunction!"

I'm always interested in the representations of law you find in popular culture. That needn't just mean fictional portrayals of courts and lawyers.  Like folk in the real world, characters in drama bandy about legal concepts more and less accurately much more often than one might think.  While it's common to envisage the law as something external and official, situated in courts, and above and apart from most people's everyday lives, the reality is rather different.  Law saturates our day to day interactions. Quietly, mutely, perhaps, but it is practically impossible to get through a day without engaging with some legally significant concept, whether it is property ownership, leases, sales of goods, contracts, remedies for debt, divorces - and so on. 

I don't regularly watch BBC Scotland's River City, it must be said, but last week's episode caught my eye.  It includes an range of scenes from the sheriff court, in an increasingly acrimonious case about child residency. Many hoary old clichés were dusted off. Juliet Cadzow, the dragonish sheriff: pert, judgemental, Anglicised and bourgeois. In deference to the formality of the occasion, the other characters wore suits, appeared nervous. Legal perceptions of the relevant issues, and those entertained by the two characters most invested in the dispute, were substantially mismatched. This mismatch caused frustration, precipitating interruptions, and increasingly heated transgressions against the stiff, formal atmosphere of the courtroom.

The legal characters, the solicitors and presiding judge, repeatedly emphasised that cool decorum was expected. Allegations and awkward questions were to be met with equanimity.  The moral? Displaying emotion in courts gets your card marked as an intemperate villain, you lose, and your life is ruined. Law courts aren't terrifically interested in your private sense of grief or injustice.

I'm sure any Scots lawyers watching it would have squirmed when Cadzow's sheriff cried "I'm issuing an injunction!" - an English concept not known to the law of Scotland, which uses interdicts - but such inaccurate marginalia are hardly unknown in Scottish drama.  As I argued back in October 2010, in Scotland we almost never see the inside of our courts fictionally depicted, and where such representations do occur, they invariably incorporate at least some alien American or English legal concepts.

What struck me as interesting, however, was how far the rest of the episode, outwith the majestic confines of the fictional Clydeinch Sheriff Cour, and out from under Cadzow's gorgonesque gaze, also turned on legal ideas of property, debt, security - and even licensing laws, egad.  Canny but unscrupulous characters take advantage of legal information asymmetries, and of wealth and access to professional counsel, to screw over others without these advantages.

You can make the case, I think compellingly, that it is actually soap operas, and not our Kavanagh QCs and Rumpoles of the Bailey, which represent our pre-eminent legal dramas, depicting the overwhelming presence of law in society, with only very occasional, uncomfortable and generally unsatisfactory forays into courts when one character is prosecuted for clobbering another, or pursues a dramatically arresting piece of civil litigation. Soaps' storytelling is rooted in communities, with large casts, and their plots revolve around their businesses and their interactions (and the ubiquitous centrality of the local boozer). Legal ideas and interactions are pervasive. 

It is a commonplace among curmudgeonly lawyers that court dramas tend to distort the reality of legal processes, generalising from the exceptional or eccentric litigant, and accordingly, cultivate a misleading impression of how civil and crime justice functions.  You can make a parallel argument about the idea that legal dramas must include gowns, wigs, a mute jury and officious ushers. Most legal disputes in our society are resolved without anyone donning a horsehair peruke. Most legal thinking in the broad sense occurs outside the courtroom.  

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