I was away and without TV or internet access for over three weeks,so I have just caught up with the last two episodes. As they are both about the same story line I thought it was appropriate to write about them together. Although the story line made great drama, any attempt to be realistic was abandoned in these episodes.
Martha takes on the case of Seam McBride, a former boyfriend from her home town, who is charged with murder. At the beginning of episode 5 she tells him no barrister would agree to represent such a close friend, and then proceeds to ignore her own advice. The reason for not representing somebody you know well was illustrated when the names of people booking rooms at the hotel where the murder took place were those of other pupils in the same class as Martha and McBride. It was a piece of evidence that pointed to his guilt. She knew that, yet in order to keep defending him she had to keep quiet about it. The effect of that would probably be to mislead the court and that is unethical and puts her in breach of the professions’ code of conduct. Of course she would have known that information before the case started as the hotel’s register and bookings list would have been part of the prosecution case.
She also is so sure of his innocence. ‘I can tell by looking in their eyes if they are guilty or not,’ she says. She is so committed to the idea that the police make the evidence fit the case for guilt that she loses all objectivity. The discovery of the gun and of McBride’s jacket add to the weight of evidence against him and Martha really doesn’t know how to deal with this apart from accusing the police of framing her client. She really should have asked for the jury to be discharged so that the jacket and the gun could be forensically examined. She might then have found out that the gun was fired by a left handed man rather than the right handed McBride.
Recalling bent solicitor Micky Joy to testify he says that lawyers just play games in court and the first casualty is truth. Coming from a dishonest lawyer that was a bit of a liberty. I am sure though it’s what many people believe, but jury trial is not meant to find the truth but to establish guilt or innocence, in the belief that the system we use of testing the evidence by cross examination ensures that the guilty are convicted and the innocent go free. Most lawyers believe it works and that is the reason they so passionately defend our adversarial trials.
For the rest of the two episodes they reflected some of the life of a set of Chambers. For example the interest in boxing was quite common as young men were taught to box, often in clubs supported by Oxbridge Universities, in order to divert them from criminal activity. The allegation of sexual harassment against Billy showed the strong loyalty in the clerks’ room to a flawed but tremendously humane personality like Billy.
So is this the last of Martha Costello and Shoe Lane Chambers. Perhaps not, but I think most barristers even if they find the series too flawed to really enjoy it would applaud Maxine Peake’s support of their cause in fighting for justice4all against the current Lord Chancellor.
I have been at sea for over two weeks and without any internet connection. I’ve missed two episodes of Silk but I will catch up with those thanks to BBC iPlayer and see what Martha Costello has been up to. So wait for those comments in due course.
In the meantime a number of people have written reviews about my novel Crucial Evidence on Amazon and on Good Reads. Some of the comments confirm what I have long suspected; that many people have very little idea about how the Criminal Justice system works. In particular one criticism of the novel was that Cassie Hardman gave away too much information about the case of R v Barker, because he believed the the proceeding were private. I do wonder if that is because cases are rarely reported in full in the newspapers these days, although the case involving Rebekah Brooks has been followed fairly closely in the news and we are getting a blow by blow account of the Pistorius case.
Perhaps the Bar ought to do more to ensure the general public do understand the process and how important it is and then perhaps the public would be more supportive of the Bar in their fight against cuts to Legal Aid.
Incidentally Crucial Evidence is receiving 4 to 5 star reviews on Amazon.
How could Clive Reader ask such an obvious leading question? There were very few inaccuracies in this episode, and I suspect that was because there were fewer courtroom scenes, but that leading question did stand out. In case anyone doesn’t know what a leading question is – it’s a question that suggests the answer to the witness. It used to puzzle me when I first qualified but I was told I would know one when my opponent asked one and the advice was right.
In contrast I thought the scene where Caroline Warwick cross examines the defendant in the rape trial was worthy of an experienced barrister. Of course she really shouldn’t have been sent off to Bury St Edmunds to prosecute in a rape trial and her indignation is understandable. Unfortunately women are instructed in sexual abuse cases far too often, and I remember a very senior female Silk complaining about being given yet another rape trial. One thing that did jar however was her rudeness to the barrister defending in the case. Silks try to be nice to more junior members of the Bar as they can often be the source of work. Although Martha Costello is shown representing a defendant without a junior barrister, Silks usually have a junior barrister with them. If a junior barrister is instructed and wants a Silk to lead them in the case they are unlikely to suggest someone who has been rude to them.
Amy Lang is a new pupil in chambers – a trainee barrister. Once a young lawyer passes their exams, they are called to the bar in a ceremony at the Inn of Court of which they are a member, but they are not allowed to practice until they have completed pupillage. For twelve months they serve a kind of apprenticeship, accompanying their pupilmaster (never a Silk) to court, reading their briefs and doing any paperwork they are asked to do. The first six months they can not appear in court or accept instructions on their own behalf and now they are assisted by their chambers with a grant. In the second six they are able to work and will receive payment – fees for that work. Amy should have already done six months as a pupil so her ignorance about the acronyms was a little surprising. Poor Amy makes a complete hash of her first appearance in court – she isn’t the only one and won’t be the last- but a ruling that your instructing solicitors should pay the costs of the hearing is a real no-no. A barrister is meant to cover the back of their instructing solicitors . She was lucky that Billy was in a good mood-upsetting solicitors who regularly instruct chambers could have ruined her chances of success
Waiting for the jury to return with a verdict is a difficult time,many barristers escape to the Bar mess, drink coffee with friends, read the newspaper and a few try to work, but concentrating is often impossible. For Martha the client comes first, so she spends the time with him. It is a reflection of the type of barrister she is;as Clive says she always ends up liking her clients, so she stasy with him.
I really enjoy this series, although at times the errors in the legal process make me want to squirm. The courtroom scenes are awful – it just isn’t like that and no-one who behaved as Martha Costello does would ever get Silk.
However the tensions that arose in this first episode are very real. I’ve been in the Court of Appeal (awful place three ghouls ready to tear every comment, every argument to shreds particularly if you defend ) and wanted to shout at the judges that they are being unfair and can’t they see how the evidence has been concocted. But, you don’t do it, you sit in your seat, stand when you have to stand you do it, and show respect to the court even if you don’t feel it.
Then there is the criticism that Martha is too emotional. Clive Reader tells her in this first episode that she is acting like the client’s mother not his lawyer and that is another conflict in a legal life, trying to be as objective as you can because that is the best thing for your client. The reason for that is that if you fight a case you can’t possibly win and the client is convicted then he will be given a tougher sentence than he would if he pleaded guilty. In this episode I believe the correct course of action would have been for the client David Cowdray to have pleaded guilty to manslaughter ( the Crown would probably have accepted that on the basis that he could not have reasonably foreseen that pushing the police officer would result in him falling and hitting his head on a metal lamp post which then resulted in his death ) The court would then have asked for Social Enquiry Reports which would have identified his schizophrenia. Martha could then have argued that instead of a prison sentence he should receive a Hospital Order for him to be treated for his illness. So bad law but good story line.
There is another rule broken for the sake of the drama; never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. The photographs taken of the police officers together outside a house while one of them was still giving evidence did reveal a breach of the rules, but no barrister would use that without knowing whose house it was. In the scene where David’s girlfriend confirms that he had a camera and the police took it, Martha realises she can’t call her as a witness because when she was cross examined by counsel for the prosecution she would give evidence that would support the Crown’s case. These are the sort of decisions a barrister makes every day, the programme makes them more extreme.
The senior clerk Billy Lamb could have been based on my original clerk. Old fashioned, not really interested in change. I am looking forward to the arguments between him and the new practice manager Harriet.
Looking forward to Episode 2.
I have been thinking about who might want to read my book Crucial Evidence. I have always assumed it would appeal to a large number of readers, mainly because whenever I was asked what I did for a living and I said I was a barrister, I was always asked about my profession and how the criminal justice system worked. Sometimes I got so fed up with being questioned about my life at the Bar, I would lie and say I was the station announcer at Waterloo, and reel of a list of stations from lines I travelled frequently. However as my writing progressed I thought that perhaps some men would be put off by the rather feminist stance the book takes. Two women, a barrister and a police-officer, are the main protagonists and their ability to work in male dominated professions is one of the themes in the novel. Because of that I adjusted my views to thinking that perhaps men would not be keen to read it.
Then when I was about half way through the writing process the series Silk was broadcast and achieved viewing figures of two million. My novel has similarities with the TV programme, so I thought it would appeal to anyone who watched that show. The story line is about the trial for murder of a rather inadequate young man, rather than the investigation of the murder, although there are elements of the investigatory process. That may raise questions as to whether the enthusiastic crime novel reader will like the more ambiguous approach taken by the lawyers. I do hope so, but what do others think.