In the bleak midwinter, tales of life (and death) in the law

Christmas Legal Fiction roundup for Counsel Magazine by Paul Magrath.

Books discussed:

Ian McEwan, The Children Act (Cape, £16.99)

Peter Murphy, A Matter for the Jury (No Exit Press, £8.99)

Kathy Lette, Courting Trouble (Bantam, £14.99)

Nick Stone, The Verdict (Sphere, £16.99)

Though the law has its champions amongst writers of fiction, it more famously has its critics. Prominent among these is Charles Dickens, whose Bleak House offers one of the most devastating attacks on the law’s infamous delays. How ironic then, that Ian McEwan, whose controlled prose is the antithesis of Dickens’ rich word-stew, should choose to echo the opening of Bleak House in his own fictional portrait of the law of wardship in The Children Act:

“London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather…”

In place of Dicken’s pointed reference to dinosaurs looming out of the fog, McEwan then places us in the civilised drawing room of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge of the Family Division, who, in the midst of correcting proofs of her judgment in one case, is summoned to determine a matter of the life or death of a child in another. A teenage cancer patient, one of a devout family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, has refused the blood transfusion which could save his life. Should the court order treatment against his wishes but in the interests of his welfare, as prioritised under section 1 of the eponymous Act?

McEwan’s novel is essentially a work of ventriloquism, minutely researched, in which he imagines himself into the thought processes of his fictitious judge, as she considers this and other cases in which the law rubs up uncomfortably against religious faith, and then outlines the judgments she will give. As he acknowledges, McEwan bases these almost entirely on a handful of real cases, whose judgments have been given by his friend Sir Alan Ward, or in one case by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. Legal sleuths with access to the Law Reports  are given sufficient clues to find these model cases. And it is in these cases, rather than in the somewhat contrived personal story woven around them, that the book’s emotional heart lies. If the book doesn’t quite succeed as a novel, it is at any rate bravely optimistic about the law and what it can achieve.

Whilst McEwan champions the law from the perspective of a curious and respectful outsider, the opposite is true of His Honour Judge Peter Murphy, a legal insider whose career includes writing the standard textbook Murphy on Evidence, a spell of teaching law in Texas and as a defence counsel in the War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, before returning to England where he now sits as resident judge of the Crown Court at Peterborough. His latest novel, A Matter for the Jury, is the second in a series about Ben Shroeder, a young barrister making his way in the early 1960s, who now finds himself engaged in one of the last murder cases for which the death penalty still applied.

In an abandoned houseboat, two young lovers are brutally attacked one dark night by an unknown intruder armed with a heavy blunt instrument. The man is killed; the woman raped, and a gold necklace torn from her neck and stolen. Three pieces of circumstantial evidence lead the police to a local lock-keeper of somewhat diminished mental agility, Billy Cottage.

The unfolding of the evidence and the course of the trial make for compelling courtroom drama; and even the argument of a point of law (whether, if Cottage committed the murder as alleged, he did so “in the course or furtherance” of the theft) is made to seem utterly gripping. There’s also a rather ghoulish description of the mechanics of hanging and the matter-of-fact preparations for its execution, should the trial lead to such a conclusion. It all depends on the verdict, which, as the novel’s title reminds us, is entirely a matter for the jury.

Faith in the justice system to deliver a fair verdict is in short supply on the grim council estate where the rape, drug dealing and some pretty grievous bodily harm take place in Kathy Lette’s latest novel, Courting Trouble. Her writing style, a giddy cocktail of high-heeled chick lit and wisecracking pulp noir, will not be to everyone’s taste. But there’s no denying her didactic good intentions, which are to put the spotlight firmly on the way rape trials are conducted.

The plot centres on the double rape of a teenager on her 16th birthday, and the actions of her feisty grandmother in going, armed with a shotgun, to confront the two alleged perpetrators, a pair of local gangland drug dealers. Was shooting them in the testicles a premeditated act of attempted murder, or was it simply the accidental discharge of a weapon whose only purpose had been self-protection?

The narrator, Matilda Devine, once “voted best legs in law school”, is a barrister who’s been kicked out of chambers for being rude to a judge, and so joins up with her sassy solicitor mother, Roxy, to form what’s described as Britain’s first “boutique feminist law firm which only champions women’s causes”. (As mixed professional partnerships go, it’s more Ab Fab than ABS.) It is to them that the gun-toting granny now turns. They are helped or hindered by several men, who in the end are either charming snakes or rugged heroes, but rarely what they first seem.

Although the writing sends out some rather mixed messages (“conviction rates for rape trials are lower than Lady GaGa’s bikini line”), hidden in the midst of all its flounce and fury is quite a decent little legal thriller.

More obviously thriller treatment is meted out by Nick Stone, a former legal clerk, in The Verdict, which is what you might call a legal defence procedural. His hero, Terry Flynt, is solicitors’ clerk who is tasked with preparing the case for the defence in a murder trial in which the defendant, Vernon James, turns out to have been an old student friend with whom he has long since fallen out.

Vernon is now a massively successful hedge fund honcho, but when the drugged, strangled corpse of a blonde in a green dress is found in bedroom of his trashed hotel suite the morning after the gala awards ceremony where he was awarded the Ethical Man of the Year prize, his protestations of innocence meet a wall of unbelief.

Will anyone believe his complicated account of a honeytrap set-up involving another woman in a different green dress, who spiked his drink, lured him into making advances and then beat him up? But who was she working for? And where is she now?

Terry hates Vernon’s guts and blames him for the way his life has tanked since college. But he still believes in the presumption of innocence and as the firm doesn’t know his awkward history with their client, and moreover appears to have a hidden agenda concerning a corporate land deal with another client, Terry must fight for justice without knowing whom he can trust.

Together with the grizzled old private detective assigned to the case, he begins to unpick the tapestry of deceit and gather the evidence with which he hopes their counsel will be able to dissuade the jury of Vernon’s guilt.

The long build-up to the trial scene which comes at the climax of the narrative is almost too authentically painstaking in its drawn-out proceduralism, but despite occasional longeurs and inaccuracies, it’s a gripping tale and would make an excellent TV mini-series.

Author details: 
Paul Magrath

Paul is Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR, publishers of the official series of The Law Reports since 1865. He is a regular contributor to the ICLR blog and reviews books for a number of legal and literary journals.