Behind the facade

The BBC drama Criminal Justice 2 raised important social issues, believes James Woolf 

Last year I reviewed Criminal Justice for this magazine (see (2008) Counsel September, p 38). Its screening led to a public row between the Bar, and Peter Moffat, former barrister and writer of the series. Tim Dutton QC, last year’s Bar Chairman, accused the BBC of a woefully inaccurate depiction of the Bar, in particular because of the huge chasm between the on-screen barristers’ ethical practices and the actual Code of Conduct. Moffat’s response was to say that this was an overreaction, adding “[Timothy Dutton QC] wants to see things in black and white. At the Bar, just as in life, standards are all too often a different colour – grey.” My own view was that the series closely missed out on being brilliant because of these moments of implausibility. To cut a long story short, Moffat won a Bafta, the Bar forgot all about it and time marched on.


In the event, the Bar was less bothered by Criminal Justice 2 than its provocative but wayward elder sibling. Having spoken to barristers, they largely took the view that this was pure entertainment (served in nightly chunks) rather than a “state of the nation” legal drama. Therefore, even though there were clearly legal inaccuracies and exaggerations, a typical barrister would say that you should take no more account of those than if you had just been watching Judge John Deed.

This may be true, but only up to a point. Criminal Justice 2 did suffer from a tendency to resort to cliché or to distort. The QC’s clerk (played by Eddie Marsan) was more loyal dog than complex human and the legal establishment was lazily depicted as something of a self-preserving male club. And because of these faults, it’s all too easy to write the series off as frothy entertainment. But to do so would be a failure to recognise and engage with the important issues that Criminal Justice 2 undoubtedly raises.


Depiction of domestic violence

As the Guardian argued, the series was probably the most realistic television portrayal of domestic violence in recent years. Julie Bindel, who has worked extensively with female prisoners, made the point that women facing charges of murder often refuse to disclose rape as a final act of provocation, even though they are looking at the prospect of a life sentence. She continued that the way the solicitor “encourages and enables her [client] to disclose that abuse should be a lesson to us all.”

And then of course the context to this domestic violence was striking. Joe Miller QC (Matthew Macfayden) – first shown appearing as a QC in a murder then became the victim in a murder trial himself. But he was also a perpetrator of violence towards his wife, who in turn also straddled both victim and perpetrator roles. Maxine Peake’s performance as Juliet rightly won many plaudits, drawing in our sympathies whilst simultaneously infuriating us by her apparent unwillingness to assist her own cause. Thirteen-year-old daughter Ella (Alison Sykes) was movingly caught in the crossfire of domestic and legal machinations, whilst Sophie Okonodo as Juliet’s solicitor offered a practical approach which was certainly a bonus to her client in comparison to her somewhat ineffective barrister (Zoe Telford).


The story unravels …

There is no doubt that Moffat has much to say in the way of pertinent social commentary. The harsh imprisonment of Juliet led to a final image of her being separated from her baby which will haunt many viewers for years to come. But then, a small amount of specialist knowledge of the legal system makes the story start to unravel; why did the judge not have a pre-sentence report at his disposal; and why was there no appeal against a five-year-sentence that was obviously biased? The mark of a great writer is surely to dramatise without us ever once doubting the validity of the story. And on that point, with both series of Criminal Justice, the jury is still definitely out.

James Woolf is a member of the Bar Council secretariat. He is also a playwright

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