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How realistic are legal dramas?

Courtroom sceneLegal dramas inspire lots of people to take an interest in law - but how close are they to the real legal world?

Dramatic Verdicts

In most courtroom dramas, the most exciting part is usually the verdict. It's the single moment that everything else hinges on - but in real life, it isn't always that simple. Most civil cases are settled out of court, meaning there's no need for a verdict to take place - but civil cases aren't common in films or on TV compared to major criminal trials.

Even in criminal cases, though, the verdict often isn't final: the right to appeal can mean that a case goes through various different courts, and can last for years before it is finally settled. But watching the same case argued again and again doesn't make for a great story.

Crossing the Channel

Many legal dramas are made in America - and even ones that aren't often show the influence of American law. Sometimes this is fairly trivial: for example, judges on English TV are often shown with a gavel (a small wooden hammer), but English judges don't use them. But they can be more important.

Juries are one example: in most of America, a jury's verdict has to be agreed on by every member. This is the basis for the film 12 Angry Men, in which a single juror who believes the accused might be innocent manages to hold up the verdict and argue his case to the others. But in England, a majority verdict is acceptable as long as no more than two jurors disagree.

There are also important differences in the rights of people who are arrested. Most people have heard the "Miranda warning", beginning "You have the right to remain silent" - but this is different in the UK. In the US, refusing to say anything can't be used against you in court - for example, if you don't give an alibi that you later use to defend yourself, the prosecution can't suggest that that means you made it up later. In England, it can, so the police instead say: "You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court".

Life in Court

A barrister's job can't really be all examining witnesses and making arguments in court, can it? Surely there's a lot of tedious paperwork they never show on television?

In fact, courtroom dramas aren't so far off the mark here - at least, for criminal barristers. Sophie Shotton explains that "a criminal barrister spends most of the day in court", with only a few weeks preparing papers before a really big trial. Other barristers might be in court for two or three days a week.

Read the rest of our interview with criminal barrister Sophie Shotton.

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