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TV Review: Does ITV's 'Inside the Court of Appeal' do the Court Justice?

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About The Author

Keir Baker (Consulting Editor)

Keir is a Trainee Solicitor currently sitting in the Finance department at a major US law firm. A law graduate from Selwyn College, Cambridge University, his main areas of interest are Employment, Discrimination and Competition law. Outside the law, Keir is an accomplished goalkeeper in both football and hockey, as well as a keen actor and pianist. He is a long-suffering supporter of Middlesbrough FC.

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©Keir Baker

It is often said that justice should not just be done, but should be seen to be done. As things stand, justice is very rarely seen and as a result our justice system continues to be poorly understood.

Adam Wagner

Documentaries about the inner workings of the legal system are rarely given a primetime slot. For the most part, the cogs of justice turn too slowly, and coverage focuses on topics too dry for the average viewer – particularly one settling down on the sofa on a Thursday night. Instead, the law usually gets its screen-time through fictional dramatisations – from Suits to A Very English Scandal – where writers take liberties to heighten the intrigue and capture the viewers’ attention.

With this in mind, I approached ITV’s new documentary Inside the Court of Appeal with a degree of trepidation. I was concerned that, in order to keep the layman engaged, the filmmakers might resort to manipulating emotions, skipping key stages of the process, or inculcating faux outrage and anger that would do harm to the public’s trust in the criminal justice system.

Such fears were heightened by the fact that Inside the Court of Appeal was part of ITV’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ season; I was braced for something which had all the hallmarks of a Channel 5 disaster… ‘Which one of Hitler’s favourite sharks really sank the Titanic?’

Though my worries in that respect were not completely assuaged, I was pleasantly surprised by several aspects of the documentary. First shown on 23 August 2018, Inside the Court of Appeal offers viewers an unprecedented insight into the English criminal appellate court by following the stories of three cases. Through interviews with a range of actors – from the barristers and solicitors involved to the families of both the victims and the defendants – it tracks the cases from their initial hearing to their conclusion.

The Cases

The Appeal of Joseph McGill

Inside the Court of Appeal began with interviews from the mothers of Joseph McGill and Sean McHugh. In May 2014, McGill – along with five others – had been convicted for the murder of McHugh via the controversial doctrine of joint enterprise, which has been examined by Amy Ling for Keep Calm Talk Law.

In September 2013, a gang – of which McGill was a part – had followed McHugh into a launderette, broken down the door of the room in which he had barricaded himself and had chased him into an alley. At some point during these events, one member of the gang had fatally stabbed McHugh. Because it was unclear who had actually perpetrated the killing, all the gang members were convicted for it. In R v Grant-Murray and Others [2017], McGill sought leave to challenge his conviction and sentence for that crime. His grounds of appeal included:

  • The jury had been misdirected as to the correct application of the joint enterprise doctrine, in light of the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in R v Jogee [2016]. That case had reformulated the doctrine, such that the prosecution now needed to show that McGill had intended for McHugh’s murder to occur; it should not have been enough that he merely foresaw its possibility.
  • There were flaws in the trial process that had denied McGill a right to a fair trial; it was argued that the fact that McGill – aged 14 at the time – was required to sit in the dock alongside his co-defendants prejudiced his case.

The Appeal of Darren Jarvis

Inside the Court of Appeal’s second featured case concerned Darren Jarvis’s conviction for causing death by dangerous driving. Here, the documentary featured not only interviews with the family of one of his victims, but also interviews with Jarvis himself: having served the two-year prison sentence he had received from Stewart J in Cardiff Crown Court in R v Jarvis [2013], he was now seeking to clear his name:

If you're involved in an accident where people sadly die, of course your name is blackened… I am not a killer. I have dreamed of having this time in in the highest court in the country to clear my name. It’s a big day in my life.

In August 2012, Jarvis had been driving a sports car along the A4059 when, unexpectedly, he accelerated and lost control. His car veered off the road and crashed into a car coming in the opposite direction. This killed Jarvis’ passenger, and killed the driver of the oncoming car – father of two, Jaceb Stawski – as well as injuring his four-year old son.

Crucially, it was agreed that Jarvis had suffered from an epileptic fit during the course of these events. However, the timing of the fit was in dispute: while Jarvis had argued the fit occurred before (and therefore caused) the crash, the prosecution had successfully argued at trial that the fit had occurred as a result of the crash, which had been caused by Jarvis’ dangerous driving.

Now in his appeal, Jarvis was relying on fresh evidence that – if successful – would allow him to rely on the defence of automatism. This would exculpate him, on the grounds that he could not have been at fault for the deaths because he was not aware of his actions.

The Appeal Against Joshua Dobby

The final case examined by Inside the Court of Appeal was R v Dobby [2017], which concerned the Attorney General’s attempt to challenge the sentence of Joshua Dobby on the ground that it was unduly lenient. In August 2016, Dobby had lost control of a stolen car he was driving at 53mph in a residential area and crashed into a bollard. This caused the car to be launched in the air, landing on top of  Rosanne Cooper and her four nephews and nieces who were walking to buy an ice cream. Rosanne Cooper and her ten year-old nephew Makayah McDermott were killed instantly.

Dobby was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment for two counts of manslaughter, a count of serious injury by dangerous driving and a count of dangerous driving. Niyah and Yahla, Makayah’s older sisters, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister complaining that this was not enough; the Attorney General – using his power under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 – took up this argument on their behalf.

Thoughts on the Documentary

It is hard to deny that – for what it was intended to be – Inside the Court of Appeal was an exemplary piece of television. It was well-crafted, and managed to time the infuriating ITV adverts to great effect. It also did well to explain the complex changes to the law of joint enterprise introduced by R v Jogee [2016] in an accessible and concise manner.

It was to be expected – in light of the harrowing facts of the cases at hand – that Inside the Court of Appeal would feature some moments of heavy emotion. Certainly, it is hard to do justice in mere words to the traumatic nature of some pieces of the film. Indeed, I struggled with misty eyes on many occasions; particularly upsetting was an interview with the wife and children of Jaceb Stawski, in which one child said she had no memories of her father, and CCTV footage of the McGill’s gang brandishing a savage-looking knife, while knowing what it would soon be used to do.

In this respect, the documentary shed light on the human cost of crime. The stories told by the disarmingly eloquent twin sisters of Makayah McDermott about their mother’s refusal to let her son go – laid bare by her reluctance to change his room from how it was on that fateful day – lived with me for the rest of the evening, and the next morning too. As a family member of one of the victims profoundly pointed out:

We’ve got to serve a life sentence now. That’s never going to go away.

Sadness was not the sole emotion triggered by the documentary, however. There were moments of vicarious satisfaction when judgments were handed down in favour of certain parties: I felt a rush of happiness when the mother of Sean McHugh was told there was no chance of her encountering her son’s killers on the streets of Liverpool. There was a flash of confusion as Jarvis announced to his lawyer that, despite having had his appeal dismissed, ‘he had closure’ and had ‘won for himself’. And there was a little taste of humour (and schadenfreude) when Jarvis’ barrister – Michael Wolkind QC – declared himself to be ‘strangely persuasive’, shortly before the Court of Appeal dismissed his arguments.

From my perspective as a young lawyer, I was delighted to see the inside of the Court of Appeal – and snippets of proceedings therein – on TV for the first time. I enjoyed thinking about the application of the relevant law to the facts (the criminal law module of my law degree focused heavily on joint enterprise) and thought all the individual lawyers involved came across in a way that will benefit the legal profession.

However, in that respect, I nonetheless remain concerned about the way in which I imagine (and this belief was validated by cursory glances at Twitter during the show’s broadcast) many laymen might react to Inside the Court of Appeal. Regrettably, the documentary – perhaps inevitably – struggled to present the cases in a way that was completely neutral and objective, and it failed properly to explain why decisions were reached. I worried that this might do harm to way in which the criminal justice system, particularly the judiciary, are perceived by the general public.

This was most evident when the documentary showed the Court of Appeal in R v Dobby [2017] refusing to increase Dobby’s sentence. True, there was some explanation of the Court of Appeal’s inability to interfere with a sentence unless it is totally unduly lenient, through the combination of the narrator and film of the Attorney General’s barrister explaining the results to the family. However, it is hard to escape the fear that the vast majority of lay viewers would echo the frustration and anger of the victim’s family members, who sarcastically declared:

I just really want to raise our glass to the great British system; they’ve really served us well wouldn’t you all agree.

Indeed – and though it is by no means scientific – evidence of such scepticism about the quality of the English criminal justice was fast covering Twitter: in the eyes of many, the family had been ‘screwed over’ by ‘high paid legal types’ with no idea of how their judgments affect the people involved.

This is likely to have been compounded by the way in which the handing out of judgment was broadcasted. Indeed, when the documentary showed Hallett LJ announcing the decision in R v Grant-Murray and Others [2017], I worried that it might have given the impression, to those unaware that more detailed written judgments would have been circulated, that  the judiciary is terse and uncaring – a problem compounded by the narrator’s description that:

After months of waiting and years of fighting on both sides, the verdict is delivered in a matter of seconds.

Conclusion

Good TV, particularly good TV documentaries, have to intrigue their audience. Some rely on detailed examinations of already interesting subject matters; others – like Inside the Court of Appeal –rely on their viewers feeling invested enough in the narrative to want to know what happens in the end.

Inside the Court of Appeal certainly succeeded in doing the latter (though it was difficult to resist the temptation to find the relevant judgments on BAILLI). It was very effective in pulling on the heartstrings and was a genuinely fascinating watch for a young lawyer who had never seen what it was like inside a court I had read so much about. I recommend watching it, simply for the snapshots of the Court of Appeal in action.

Yet, in my mind, the documentary did little to aid the cause of the criminal justice system as a whole. It was always going to be difficult to effectively place the cases in their precise legal context, but I feel that more could have been done to stress the procedural limitations upon the discretion of the judges of the Court of Appeal that engendered greater understanding of the extent to which they could intervene.

After all, the justice system relies on public trust and confidence for its authority. All three have been under threat in recent years for a wide variety of reasons. As enjoyable a watch as it was, I worry that Inside the Court of Appeal may prove a vehicle for further erosion.

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Tagged: Courts, Criminal Law, Justice, Legal Education, Review, Supreme Court, The Judiciary

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