Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Lisa Trach

BSc with Specialization (Psychology) at the University of Alberta, and now in second year of the LLB program at the University of Alberta.
Has worked with developmentally disabled adults, and is a very active volunteer with Student Legal Services of Edmonton.


Do some lawyers lie? The answer is most likely, "Yes". Nevertheless, making the generalization that all lawyers are liars is unrealistic. The legal profession is one that demands integrity, and most lawyers take that very seriously.

Does Pop Culture Libel Law And Lawyers?

by Lisa Trach

How often do we hear phrases like, "He got a slap on the wrist", or "He got off on a technicality"? How about jokes that start off something like, "A doctor, an accountant, and a lawyer walk into a bar…" where the punch line is about the lawyer being dishonest, greedy, or disliked? It seems that the current attitude of society is that the justice system is really not that just, and the members of the legal community are a questionable bunch. No system is perfect, and it is probably fair to say that every member of the legal community can critique some aspect of our justice system. These criticisms are based on experience and knowledge that comes with being involved with the system. However, on what is the average citizen basing his or her opinions on how just our legal system is? The average citizen has little or no contact with the justice system. Their main source of information about how the legal system works and what kind of people run the system comes from the media, movies, T.V. programs, and other popular culture. It seems inevitable that what they see will influence their attitudes about the system and those involved in it. Is what they are seeing correct? Or does popular culture bias the average citizen, leaving them with unrealistic views of how our justice system functions? To answer this, it is helpful to take a look at some of the popular culture of the past and present, examine how it portrays the law and lawyers, and attempt to evaluate its accuracy. Only then does it become apparent how society's negative attitudes towards the justice system can be attributed, at least in part, to popular culture, and how those attitudes are unfair to a legal system that is inaccurately portrayed.

One medium through which the legal system is portrayed is film. Many movies embrace the law as their subject matter. A common character is the lawyer. The stereotypical movie lawyer is untruthful, uncaring, driven by greed, and in some cases, the villain. Recall the main character in Liar Liar for example. His ability to be a great lawyer is jeopardized when he loses his ability to lie. The courtroom scene where he defends a cheating wife in her divorce proceedings is a complete disaster because he can not lie and his entire defense is based on lies. Jim Carey's character in Liar Liar is also disliked outside of his law office. He is divorced and neglects his duties as a father. What is the message here? Lawyers are liars, and bad people. We see this theme reoccurring again and again. In the most recent version of Cape Fear, the main character, Sam Bowden, is a lawyer. He is supposed to be the protagonist, but it is difficult to really like him. After all, he cheated on his wife and caused her to have a nervous breakdown. He also acted unethically in defending a past client by not doing everything possible in his defense. Then we have The Devil's Advocate. In this film the successful head partner of a prestigious law firm turns out to be the devil. Need more be said? How about Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Rita, in I Am Sam? When she is a lawyer with a successful practice, she neglects her son, is rude, won't do any pro bono lawyering, makes her secretary cry, and avoids her husband. Later in the film, when she announces that she has essentially given up her busy practice, she is portrayed as the caring friend, great mother, and all-around nice gal. How does a lawyer get to be a nice person? According to the movies, they have to quit being a lawyer.

A closer look at lawyers exposes the common movie depiction as false. Law students are taught the ethics of their trade from the very beginning of their career and making only those representations that are known to be true is one of the most important of those ethical obligations. The legal community is a relatively small one. Therefore, the actions of each lawyer are constantly scrutinized by their peers. One's reputation within the legal community is easily tarnished by deceitfulness. A lawyer can quickly lose the respect of other members of the legal community by misleading. Do some lawyers lie? The answer is most likely, "Yes". Nevertheless, making the generalization that all lawyers are liars is unrealistic. The legal profession is one that demands integrity, and most lawyers take that very seriously. The idea that lawyers are driven by greed, and that successful lawyers don't do pro bono or charity work is also false. Some examples serve to defeat this assumption. In British Columbia, the Salvation Army runs a Pro Bono program that provides free legal services to those who do not qualify for legal aid. In 1999, nearly 170 lawyers donated their time and services to this program. Similarly, one of the most successful and respected criminal lawyers in Edmonton, Alberta, was recently ranked third on the list of lawyers who do the most legal aid work in Alberta. Clearly this is not motivated by greed, as legal aid is not as lucrative as regular practice. Even during the most demanding times in their career, lawyers find time to donate their services. Crossroads, a program in Edmonton, Alberta that sends outreach workers into the inner city, benefits from the volunteered time of a young associate. This young lawyer joins the outreach worker in the Crossroads van, traveling the streets during late night shifts, encouraging safety and providing legal information to Edmonton's prostitution community. She did so throughout her busy articling year and continues to be a volunteer with the organization. Is this work of people who can be equated with the devil? The depiction of lawyers in the movies leads the public to see the entire community as having little compassion and no character. However, these lawyers, among many others prove that this portrayal is unfair, leaving lawyers to battle a stereotype that in many cases is totally inaccurate.

It is not just the portrayal of the lawyer in movies that is disturbing. Movies often depict the entire legal system as unfair and corrupt. For example, in I Am Sam, the viewer is put into Sam's shoes and takes his side. Sam is shown as a loving father that has his child taken away from him because he is mentally challenged. To the viewer, the legal system seems cruel because it takes Lucy from Sam, even though he has raised her for 7 years and she is very bright and well adjusted. The district attorney, judge, and social worker, all working on behalf of the legal system, are portrayed as heartless, wanting to take her away from her true father without really caring about what Lucy wants. The viewer is outraged at the system for taking a young girl away from her father when he clearly loves her dearly. Who cares if he is disabled? After all, as Lucy says, "All you need is love".

A realistic look at the situation reveals that the movie's version of the legal system is deceiving and unduly harsh. It is not cruel that our system inquires into the ability of a severely disabled parent to care for a child. In fact, it seems that a system that did not make this inquiry would be negligent in caring for the youth of its jurisdiction. Lucy's comment about only needing love is very sweet, but oversimplifies things enormously. A report done by the New York State Commission of Quality of Care outlined some of the problems facing parents with mental disabilities. The study profiled 41 families in detail. "In general, it was found intellectually challenged parents had low self esteem; they resisted help from the outside for fear of losing their children; almost half of the parents in the study had faced at least one allegation of child abuse or neglect. Twenty-five percent of the children failed to receive adequate medical, dental care and nutrition. And nearly two thirds of the children over the age of three had an identified learning disability, believed to be as a result of not getting enough stimulation in their early formative years."(1) This does not necessarily mean that a disabled parent can not be a good parent. This study simply indicates that it is fair that our legal system look into a mentally challenged parent's abilities to insure the child is getting the necessary care. The system must put the best interest of the child in front of any other factor. This is just one example of how movies can distort the goals of the legal system and deceive the general public. A depiction such as the one in I Am Sam that ridicules the legal system and is effective in persuading the viewer that the system is unjust for making such an inquiry is ludicrous. Yet these types of depictions occur in movies quite frequently.

Movies are not the only form of popular culture that influences the beliefs of people about the legal system and community. Television is perhaps even more invasive and persuasive to the general public. Shows such as Law and Order, The Practice, and Matlock definitely have an influence on how the public imagines the justice system to be. However, their accuracy leaves much to be desired. Although they may deal with issues that are current in the real-life legal community, they do so in a way that biases the viewer. For example, Law and Order shows each of its cases from the point of view of the police and the prosecution. Defense counsel is made to look like the villain, siding with the guilty and trying anything to get them off. Meanwhile, the prosecutors are made out to be heroes, who usually are seeking a result that popular opinion at the time would support. This leaves the viewer with the impression that the legal system is a battle between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" where the only just result is when the "good guys" prevail. These television programs also fail to represent the workings of the system accurately. In Matlock, we always see Ben get up and lay out the "truth" in front of the jury while he is supposed to be cross-examining the witness. This type of monologue would never happen in a courtroom during a cross examination. The rules of evidence forbid it. Sadly, the public is influenced by this type of programming and will often refer to things seen on these shows when discussing their attitudes towards the justice system.

Perhaps the most frightening medium through which people's attitudes about the justice system are prejudiced is the media. This is because people consider the media to be based on fact, whereas they know there is some element of fiction to television and movies. However, the media can also paint misleading pictures of justice and the system. Even the wording of a newspaper headline can bias the public, causing them to expect a certain result and become dissatisfied with the system when their expectations are not met. Take, for example, headlines such as "Biggest Reward for Slayer" and "Boy Must Face Higher Court in Slaying". The fact that the words "slayer" and "slaying" are used invokes public emotion. The articles following these headlines paint a very one-sided picture, and could easily convince the public of the boy's involvement in the crime. If the boy were not convicted, the public may react. Even more devastating is the reality of what happened in the case described in these headlines. Biased views as to his guilt caused this boy, at only age 14, to be convicted of murder of a young girl and initially sentenced to death. This young boy's name was Steven Truscott. His death sentence was commuted and he ended up serving ten years in jail before he was paroled. He then spent thirty years living under a new identity, until his story resurfaced. It is now believed that Steven was wrongfully convicted. This is only one of many cases where the public has believed a person to be guilty and called out to the justice system to convict, later learning that the person was innocent. Still, with several cases where DNA evidence has identified wrongfully convicted individuals, the public continues to think that the system is too kind. Many seem happier with a wrongful conviction than an acquittal, although the latter means that the learned members of the legal community could not be sure of guilt. Media coverage skewing the facts can make the system look overly lenient instead of vitally cautious.

There may be motives as to why the legal system is portrayed as it is in popular culture. Regarding the media, the motive is obvious. Who wants to read about the fifty guilty pleas that occurred in courtroom #268 today? On the other hand, a sensationalized article on the murder and rape of a young girl by a young boy draws attention. In a way, movies and television have the same goal. In his article, Peace Between the Sexes: Law and Gender in Kramer vs. Kramer, David Papke suggests another motive of popular culture's portrayal of the law. He concedes that television and movies are filled with legal inaccuracies, but claims that they "are not mistakes, much less attempts to dupe the lay public."(2) Papke makes the argument that the law is often an appropriate forum to play out an issue that is culturally relevant at the time. In Kramer vs. Kramer, this issue is gender inequality. Although, as Papke points out, the courts no longer relied on gender to decide custody battles, gender was still a topic on the minds of the public in the 1980's, when the movie was released. Using it in such an inaccurate way in Kramer vs. Kramer just makes obvious the irrelevance of gender to so many issues traditionally based on gender. Although Papke's theory makes sense, what he seems to avoid is the fact that the public may be getting duped, despite the intentions of producers, screenwriters, and journalists. Although popular culture may have motives other than destroying the public's confidence in the justice system, it often is doing just that.

In his book Getting Away With Murder: The Canadian Criminal Justice System, David Paciocco seems to suggest that the lack of confidence in the justice system is due to the fact that the public is uninformed. He states, on pages 11-12, "We would go a long way towards restoring the credibility of the administration justice if only we would seek to explain the system to the general public." Not only are the public uninformed. They are also misinformed. Popular culture gives the public an unrealistic view of how the legal system works. It portrays the person who gets off on a technicality, but fails to mention the other hundred people who pleaded guilty, which is a very common occurrence in our courts today. Television, movies, and the media often cause the system to seem cold and unfair. However, our justice system is one that protects the rights of all members of society. The "technicalities" in popular culture are, in reality safeguards against state power. When one takes an informed look at the way popular culture characterizes the justice system, it becomes evident that there are misrepresentations and inaccuracies that lead to bias. Therefore, although entertaining, information about the justice system in popular culture should be accepted with skepticism, and judgments upon the system and the legal community should be left to the truly informed citizen.

1. Is Love Enough?
2. Peace Between the Sexes: Law and Gender in Kramer vs. Kramer, University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 30, p. 1201.

Posted December 11, 2003

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