Tales from the scripts

Behind every legal screenplay lies a legal eagle who attempts to mould artistic creativity into legal dictum. And out there in the audience lurks a gaggle of beady-eyed lawyers waiting to pounce on any errors which slip through the net.

Kavanagh QC proved such a case. The highly acclaimed series had one little legal error – there was no red sash on the judge's robes in a particular episode. A letter from a lawyer viewer was dashed off to The Times and all hell broke loose.

The furore illustrates just how much legal series script-writers depend on their advisers. And, although the lack of a red sash was a simple mistake, the competing interests of observing the legal niceties and creating an interesting scene can cause dilemmas for those all involved in the process.

This was well illustrated by the film In the Name of the Father in which a solicitor (prior to the extended rights of audience) addressed the Court of Appeal, angering many lawyers.

Barrister David Bradly, of Queen Elizabeth Buildings, was legal adviser to the Kavanagh QC series and has also worked on the second series. “I don't like seeing things portrayed wrongly,” he says. “The mission on Kavanagh QC was to get it as right as possible, which is why the red sash was such a pain.”

The BBC's series Crown Prosecutor had its fair share of inaccuracies. The 10-part series, which attempted to show the overstretched and underfunded world of the Crown Prosecution Service, has come in for flak, especially for an episode showing prosecutor Lenny Monk, a senior Crown Prosecutor, coaching witnesses.

Says actor Tom Chadbon of his character: “He is a bit of a maverick, and has even been known to coach witnesses to make sure that what he sees as justice is done. He hates the idea of the guilty going free. It is probably not politically correct to say so, but sometimes the technicalities of the law are such that justice isn't done.”

However, a spokesperson at the CPS says liberties were taken with the legalities and that a prosecutor “would never coach a witness”.

In getting the series together, the aim is to take viewers behind the scenes, showing the difficult and painstaking decisions that have to be taken before a case comes to court. The CPS assisted in the programme and provided guidance on the workings of the service, viewing the series as an information exercise. Of the inaccuracies, it says that it had no final control over dramatic content.

A spokesperson from the BBC press office accepts that there were inaccuracies but says: “We've got to make the story viable and interesting, and while it's got to be as real as possible, you have to bear in mind that you are telling a story and discrepancies can arise.”

Bradly is only too aware of how discrepancies arise. He is witness to the volatile relationship between the screen and the law. “It was often one big scrap,” he says of the first series of Kavanagh QC. “I'd attend a meeting and the artistic people would want to do one thing. I'd reply: 'You can't do that'.”

His role was to sort out the procedural aspects. The majority of work was on the script and he advised on whether scriptwriters' plans were accurate as well as structuring evidence for the court case to ensure the proper evidence was put forward for the result desired.

The involvement of a lawyer begins with an idea put forward by the scriptwriters, such as the rape episode in the last series of Kavanagh QC.

“They come in with an idea and ask whether it is possible and how it might work,” says Bradly. “You go through a draft of the script and have to tell them 'You can't ask questions like that as it's inadmissible'.”

Advice is sometimes on more practical issues and actors and writers came into chambers for research. Indeed, the actor who played the clerk in the series spent some time sitting with Bradly's junior clerk Stephen Morley and was said to be very similar to Morley from the way he talked, sat and behaved to how he smoked his cigarette.

Bradly, a common law barrister, started work on the first series in January 1994. He says he is busy with his regular work but that Kavanagh QC has “proved to be a nice sideline”. While the television work does not pay “brilliantly well” in terms of the time he has spent on it, he says that at least the pay is upfront.

There are those who hope that courtroom fiction will become faction and that the example of last year's Scottish series The Trial will be taken to heart in England.

Although the jury is still out on whether there will be another series of Crown Prosecutor – which one critic had called “the Crossroads of the legal profession” – the future of one courtroom drama seems secure, especially in the light of Kavanagh QC's viewing figures of around 13 million.