The Trial review: ‘the closest TV has got to an accurate depiction since Crown Court’

Criminal barrister Matthew Scott, of Pump Court Chambers, reviews The Trial, the Channel 4 dramatisation that has had lawyers gripped over the past week.

It took an imaginary five-day murder trial in which barristers, a recently retired judge and a court usher all played themselves, while actors – all very accomplished – played the part of witnesses and the defendant. The jury was randomly selected and was asked to arrive at a verdict after the ‘trial’, in exactly the same way that they would be asked in a real murder trial.

The producers appear to have three purposes:

(a) To produce a gripping TV drama;

(b) To educate the general public about what happens in a Crown Court murder trial; and

(c) To reveal how a jury arrives at its verdict.

There is no doubt that they succeeded in (a). The fact that the whole thing was improvised gave the show an immediacy and sense of realism that most courtroom dramas struggle to achieve. What’s more there was, as the trial developed, real doubt as to who the villain was.

The circumstantial case against the defendant – a rather lugubrious university lecturer, who nevertheless possessed a fiery temper – was strong; the question was whether there was a possibility that the deceased’s lover, who had been kicked out of the police for breaking a suspect’s rib, might instead be the killer.

Until after the final commercial break, it was quite impossible to know for sure who strangled Carla.

I am not convinced that the show worked quite so well as education. With real barristers and a real judge it was reassuringly free of ‘strike that from the records’, ‘so help me Gods’ and gavels.

On the other hand the editing process meant that a great deal was missed out. We heard, for example, little of the summing-up and no legal arguments. Anyone watching who was unfamiliar with Crown Courts might think that the sole function of the judge is to announce every ten minutes that it is time to take a break.

It also felt very peculiar to hear the jurors arguing about their decision without, as far as I can recall, a single reference to the burden or standard of proof.

In fact one juror – who argued persuasively and voted for a conviction – even explained on camera that she could not be ‘absolutely sure’.

The barristers – with one glaring reservation – shone. Prosecutor Max Hill QC demonstrated the power of speaking very … very … slowly. His opening was persuasive and his cross-examination style simple and, probably for that reason, very effective.

Defence counsel John Ryder QC was warmer: avuncular is probably the word.

The reservation emerged during Hill’s closing speech, in which he made an acid comment about Ryder’s failure to ask the officer-in-the-case why he had not charged the other potential suspect with murder.

I am not sure that it was a particularly good point anyway, but it then emerged that he and Ryder had agreed out of court that the latter would not cross-examine the officer at all.

It seemed very close to a trick – the sort of advocacy that ought to be anathema to the prosecution in any trial, and especially a murder trial.

Understandably Ryder harrumphed: ‘Outrageous,’ he muttered to his junior, and he was not wrong. Afterwards he complained to Hill, who muttered some sort of half-apology to Ryder and wrote out a form of words to be included in the summing up which was supposedly meant to correct the position.

Ryder agreed to that in a suitably gentlemanly way, although a more prickly opponent would have tried to insist on Hill making a grovelling apology in front of the jury.

Just in case you thought Hill’s behaviour could be excused as an innocent mistake, he then explained his behaviour to the viewers with the observation that he did not ‘have a contract’ with the defence.

Indeed not, but one does not expect any barrister to take unfair advantage of a counsel-to-counsel agreement. As is usually the way with these things, the subtleties of the incident seem to have been lost on the jurors, although one did note that Hill’s speech seemed to have got the defence looking rattled for the first time in the trial.

Hill may be a legal bigwig, a terror watch-dog, a former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and, in all probability, a future High Court judge, but this sort of prosecutorial legerdemain struck a sour note. Still, it made good television while illustrating one of the problems with this sort of virtual reality TV: I am quite sure that Hill would have been more circumspect in real life.

The camera in the jury room ought to have been the most interesting part of the show for anyone involved in the legal world. Battle lines were drawn fairly early on and fairly predictably.

The health visitor felt strongly about male violence against women, and revealed that she had known of a very nice seeming man who had murdered his wife.

The ex-soldier dug in and refused to be convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Speculation and theories abounded: the cold dispassionate look at the evidence that the Judge had called for was in short supply.

If you haven’t watched it to the end yet then look away now.

The ending was in some ways rather unsatisfactory: a hung jury, although leaning 8:4 in favour of acquittal. All those who voted in favour of conviction were women.

Nobody likes a hung jury, yet it was hard to say that an injustice had occurred. The evidence simply wasn’t enough to be sure of his guilt, the jury as a whole didn’t accept the prosecution case, but didn’t entirely reject it either, yet the prosecution survived for another bite at the cherry.

Viewers were then told what had really happened.

The husband did it in a fit of anger, exactly as the prosecution had alleged. The closing credits then told us that roughly two women a week were killed by their partners.

That seemed to be an implied criticism of the process, which had temporarily at least, allowed the defendant to escape from justice. As such I’m not sure The Trial really stands up.

A fictional jury did not actually let a fictional defendant off a fictional murder of a fictional woman.

All the same it was the closest that television has got since the long lamented Crown Court to the accurate depiction of a criminal trial. There is plenty of scope for another series.



About Matthew Scott

Matthew is is a barrister at Pump Court Chambers specializing in criminal law and blogs at which won the 2015 Comment awards for the best independent blog

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