Our legal system is one of the country’s great exports. Surely it should get its own TV series?
It is about time that the law had its own large-scale TV series (even radio would satisfy me). I don’t mean the soap operas which are based in a barristers’ chambers or in an American law firm, but an in-depth examination of the development of the law, of the legal system as whole, and of the legal profession’s role within it.
At the beginning, we had Kenneth Clarke on Civilisation and The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski. Many subsequent series have been devoted to other aspects of life. What about one focusing on the history of the law?
If nothing else, our legal system has been one of the great exports of this country. Indeed, it has been a great European export overall, since the major European legal systems have formed the legal backbone of most of the rest of the world. The law’s history is therefore intrinsically caught up with the rise and fall of European empires over the last centuries, with echoes from the history of Roman law as a long-lasting remnant of the Roman empire.
As a by-product, the spread of the large English law firms from modest partnerships in the City of London 50 years ago to world-conquering giants should be part of this history, together with the dominance of common law firms in general in international commercial practice. Why did this happen? What are the consequences? What are the views from the European civil law – or indeed from Asia and Latin America – to a new form of service-based colonialism?
Since our common law says so much about us as a culture (as does the civil law about the countries where it is practised), any series should not take place in UK isolation. Rather, it should be an international, or at least a European, exercise. It is only by learning about different legal systems that we are able to reflect properly on the values and overall development of our own.
I have had this TV idea for some time, but it was prompted again when I visited a notary here in Belgium a few days ago. I was asked whether I had married into community of property, as is the common default position in many civil law systems. Of course, our system does not work like that. It occurred to me that an exploration of the different attitudes towards matrimonial property regimes, with pros and cons, would make an interesting segment in the kind of programme I mean.
There is a string of other interesting confrontations to be had in highlighting contrasts between the common law and civil law - for instance, notaries or solicitors? inquisitorial or adversarial system? a reliance on precedents or codification? There could be an illustration of the different ways of appointing judges, since we appoint from experienced lawyers, whereas in many other systems being a judge is a career that starts after post-university training.
What do litigants or defendants think about having their case judged by someone who is not yet 30? Is it a better system than our own (where some might claim that there is a conflict inherent in former senior advocates deciding cases argued by their old colleagues)? And how about the various approaches to the involvement of lay people in the legal system? In each case, there could be real-life illustrations of the strengths and weaknesses of the particular method.
There are interesting items beyond the development of the legal system itself. For instance, and almost at random, court buildings provide good history. There are some beautiful ones – our own Royal Courts of Justice for example, although the Palais de Justice in Paris is equally impressive. And why are such high court buildings always built to impress, on a scale which dwarfs the litigants who seek justice within them?
And, on a more trivial level, did you know that the scaffolding on the gigantic Palais de Justice in Brussels is now an integral part of the building itself because it has been there for so long (the cost of hiring the scaffolding for such a period proved so expensive that the authorities eventually had to buy it from the scaffolding company)?
Court dress is equally entertaining. The history of why wigs remain in courts long after they vanished everywhere else in our society is worth telling, along with an examination of the ubiquity of court robes around Europe, and their variations. We say ‘Your Honour’ to judges, or ‘My Lord’ (and there are other possibilities) – what is the practice elsewhere?
I think you get the picture. All we need is an enterprising producer to see its potential, and the law could be the focus of a rich and novel series.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs