Thinking inside the box

Murder trial broadcast highlights the unseen role played by TV in-house lawyers

As broadcasters continue to break new ground, in-house lawyers are becoming stars behind the scenes.

Nick Holt’s real-life courtroom documentary The Murder Trial, broadcast last week on Channel 4, reignited the debate over cameras in court. Never one to shy away from controversy, Channel 4 showed the retrial of Nat Fraser in the Scottish High Court after he was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife.

This marked the first time an entire case had been filmed in the UK, a huge achievement for documentary commissioner Nick Mirsky and director Holt. But we shouldn’t forget that for every TV experiment (with Channel 4, that includes shows such as Drugs Live: the Ecstacy Trial) there’s an in-house lawyer making it happen. 

In The Murder Trial, which took three years to negotiate, that was Channel 4 in-houser Dominic Harrison. A qualified Scottish solicitor and therefore an officer of the Scottish Court, Harrison not only knew some of the judges he was negotiating with but also what they needed. 

“The criterion for filming a trial is to do it without risk to the administration of justice,” Harrison tells The Lawyer. “When Lord Bracadale wanted further reassurance and information we were able to satisfy the court that we could film first, then get consent from all involved later.”

This was an obvious risk for Harrison and his team, given that they could have filmed five weeks’ worth of evidence without getting consent from the 70 witnesses to broadcast. In the end, only one is thought to have declined. 

If The Murder Trial encourages cameras to be allowed into British courts, more in-housers will be faced with providing insight into
a courtroom while keeping
judges, witnesses and defendants happy. 

If that sounds a tall order, think of the other shows Channel 4’s 10-strong legal team have had to grapple with – The Plane Crash, which crashed a Boeing 727 to study the effect on test dummies, and Drugs Live, which tested 25 volunteers after they took MDMA.

No wonder it won TMT Team of the Year at The Lawyer Awards.