There was a crime drama on television the other night (that shall remain nameless!) that I was watching. As an ex-lawyer, I do tend to pick over the various errors made. I deliberately make some myself in my fiction – for pace, for plot, for suspense. But that night, I was musing that lawyers on television often wear wigs in inquests, but how in reality they rarely do: the Coroner’s court is a little more informal than a ‘normal’ courtroom. I got a notebook, and started writing some things down and, well, those jottings became a list of common errors made in crime fiction and television.
1. There is no gavel in an English courtroom
It’s true. There is – and never has been – a gavel in an English courtroom. And yet, stock photos of gavels prevail all over the internet. The gavel comes from the US, where it’s frequently used to begin or end proceedings. In the UK, no such thing happens. The Judge stands, and usually most people in the court do too, as he leaves, and you are supposed to briefly bow your head, but that is that.
2. Lawyers do not say ‘objection!’
UK courtrooms are rather more low key than you would imagine – but no less compelling for it: all the drama is still present. I tried, in my novel No Further Questions, to write about a realistic UK courtroom, complete with adjournments, missing witnesses and sleepy juries, and so there is not a single ‘objection!’ in it. To object (and to have it be sustained or overruled) is an American term. In the UK, lawyers generally would rise and say something like, ‘if I will, Madam…’ or ‘Sorry to interrupt, but…’ or ‘My learned friend is asking a leading question…’ It’s all terribly British.
3. Lawyers are very specialised
In plenty of movies and TV shows in particular, it’s usual to see a lawyer who does crime, divorce, wills, corporate litigation, defamation… everything. In reality, lawyers specialise early on in their careers, and they even specialise within a specialism. Some lawyers don’t even do general crime: they would work on homicide or fraud cases but not both. Family lawyers would do divorces or childcare or drawing up pre-nups, but not usually all three. The life of a lawyer is not quite as varied as television would suggest, and if you acted on family, crime, corporate and probate cases you would almost certainly be negligent.
4. Lawyers can’t defend somebody they know to be guilty on a not guilty plea
This is a particular pet peeve of mine. The situation is that lawyers can ‘test the prosecution’s case’ (i.e. allow the prosecution to give evidence while saying nothing). But they cannot allow a guilty client to give evidence on a not guilty plea if the lawyer knows the client to be guilty. Of course, you might suspect, but the defendant cannot confess to you and you say nothing. At this stage, you would be what is termed ‘professionally embarrassed’ and you would have to decline to act.
5. Solicitors do not speak in court
It’s barristers. On television, often one lawyer will handle everything from the initial meeting, prepping the case, and speaking in court. In reality, an associate solicitor and a small team of other solicitors and paralegals would prep the case, and hand everything over to a barrister who would act effectively as a mouthpiece in court. It’s less romantic, of course, than one lawyer overseeing everything and becoming emotionally involved, but it’s the way it is.