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Famous TV judges and court shows – are they authentic?

27th March 2017

Courtroom TV series

Although intended to provide entertainment, legal professionals believe court shows can have a significant influence on the public’s perception of the British legal system. The question of authenticity surrounding these programmes is one which has been debated by lawyers for many years.

A blog on why law students and those looking for lawyer jobs should watch TV series by Law Studies said: “Legal shows make people feel like they can understand the complexities of law and offer a real sense of justice and closure.” The blog goes on to suggest that as an introduction to law, TV series can be helpful when you are starting out in the industry.

So, with some suggesting court shows have their benefits, and others suggesting they may be misleading the public, Law Absolute takes a deeper look into their authenticity.

Popular court shows

Judge Rinder

Judge Rinder is a British court show which features daily on ITV. Criminal barrister Robert Rinder hosts the show as the judge, overseeing civil cases including neighbourly disputes, personal disputes and consumer issues. Although not a real judge, Rinder is a criminal barrister. The show emulates its American counterpart, Judge Judy.

In an interview with Legal Cheek, Judge Rinder said: “My main concern was that while I accepted the programme had to have a significant entertainment element, it also had to have integrity. I was adamant that we had to make it clear to viewers that I am in fact a practising criminal barrister and not a civil law judge. But after discussing the issues with the team I was confident that they appreciated those concerns and that they knew what they were doing.”

Judge John Deed

Unlike the many reality TV judge shows, Judge John Deed was a BBC courtroom drama series. However, the two share similarities. Legal professionals have questioned Judge John Deed over the years, claiming the way cases are handled in the show are not a fair representation of the British legal system.

In an interview with the Bournemouth Echo, Dorset barrister Rob Griffiths revealed he believes the public gets the wrong idea from TV dramas such as Judge John Deed. He told the newspaper: “They’d all be hauled up in front of a disciplinary tribunal. Rumpole of the Bailey was more accurate for its era.” The article questioned Griffiths on the harshness of barristers in court dramas. He added: “It doesn’t really happen like that in the real world. Those sorts of techniques which you tend to see on television don’t really operate successfully because juries tend to rebel against it.”

Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice was a British TV drama series following the journey of an individual through the justice system over five episodes. This gripping series was well-received by critics, although some claimed it failed to address the real dilemmas of the criminal justice system in the UK. In a Telegraph column discussing his series, writer Peter Moffat said: “If a piece of drama is going to be up close with the main character it’s important that it feels authentic. Criminal Justice uses experts from every field to ensure that this is so. But there is no substitute for on-the-ground research. It’s by spending time in police stations and going out in police cars at night that you pick up the texture and colour that make things feel real when you come to write.”

Judge Judy, US

Having first premiered in September 1996, Judge Judy is one of the longest-running court shows still on television. Hosted by Judy Sheindlin, an American lawyer and former judge, the show has maintained its popularity over the decades, although it has also received its fair share of criticism. The late Joseph Wapner, who hosted The People’s Court from 1981 to 1993, was a long-time critic of Judge Judy, allegedly stating she did not observe certain standards of conduct and often appeared rude.

A blog post by FindLaw reveals that in Judge Judy and other court shows, the financial aspect is what appeals to prospective litigants: “Regardless of the outcomes on Judge Judy, both parties to a case emerge as winners. That’s because the show pays for the arbitration award, along with the litigant’s airfare and hotel expenses.”

Watching TV courtroom drama

How authentic is judge rinder?

Although entertaining and hugely popular in the UK, ITV series Judge Rinder has prompted many law professionals to discuss how accurately the show represents the British legal system. Charlotte Newman of Stowe Family Law, both a lawyer and a fan of court room series, weighed in on the debate: “I am not ashamed to admit that court room dramas and series that focus on the daily lives of lawyers are one of my favourite past times. The excitement of the court room and that sit on the edge of your chair moment is for me, synonymous with real entertainment. That is, however, exactly what it is – entertainment.

“One of my favourites is catching up on Judge Rinder, who ironically, is not a real judge. The litigants that appear on the show bring their grievances for him to settle and in doing so accept that his judgement will be the final judgement. In a similar fashion to other daytime shows, the participants also choose to air their ostensibly bizarre lives for the nation to see. Much of my (or dare I say, our) guilty fascination with the show is more about these seemingly far-fetched tales, than it is about the real thing.”

The set of Judge Rinder resembles that of an American court room, with flags and a gavel setting the tone, although neither of these are used in British courts. Charlotte added: “It would appear that these things simply enhance the dramatic viewing of the show.”

Does the show accurately represent the British legal system?

It’s not just the props and appearance of the show that seem detached from the reality of British courts. According to Charlotte, there are some crucial differences between law in real-life and that of Judge Rinder’s faux court room. She said: “Most small claims trials are dealt with in District Judges chambers as opposed to the court room and parties ordinarily have a barrister or solicitor present to represent them. This is not the case in Judge Rinder’s court room where he questions the litigants himself and then makes his ruling.”

Despite the fact that Robert Rinder is not a judge, many feel his wit and charisma contribute greatly towards the show’s success. Charlotte added: “Although extremely intelligent and also very accomplished, he is perfect for the show because of his flamboyant and extrovert personality. Whilst many judges are also very quick and witty, it is clear that Judge Rinder does not fit the mould of the formal English judiciary; though I doubt that the show would have been as successful if he did.”

Drawing on her own experience, Charlotte finds that despite the show’s theatrical features and the lack of Rinder’s judgeship, there is something to be said for the programme: “Although extremely entertaining, the show does have integrity. The cases are determined using the very same legal principles that would be applied in a small claims court. This is clear in the eyes of a lawyer.

“What is also clear is that Judge Rinder has the ability to cleverly summarise the cases before him, simply and succinctly, and to deduce the real issues in contention, albeit in an entertaining fashion. This is something that I appreciate, viewing the show as a young lawyer, as they are qualities that can set one apart as a great lawyer.

“When I represent a client on a complex case, I find it a joy to watch the barrister instructed work through the case obfuscations with such an ease and elegance.”

“So, mirroring words spoken by Judge Rinder’s American counter-part, ‘the cases are real, the people are real, the rulings are final (unless appealed!). The authenticity of the shows set-up may be questionable but the integrity in how the cases are determined is not’.”

What’s the verdict?

It seems that as long as viewers are aware that aspects of court shows and series may not be completely authentic, there is no real harm done. As Judge Rinder mentioned in his interview with Legal Cheek, it is important to make everyone aware of the reality of the situation. While several elements of the most popular UK and US court shows are not representative of real life, according to legal professionals, the basic principles often do reflect today’s court rooms and processes. The verdict? Take these shows with a pinch of salt.