Law and film: Far more than the ‘boob tube’

By Bo Kruk

Law360 Canada (June 7, 2023, 9:14 AM EDT) --
 Bo Kruk
Bo Kruk
From Rudy Baylor and Elle Woods, to Harvey Specter and Mike Ross, legal movies and TV series have become an integral party of the modern law school curriculum. Often, they are accessible examples of how the law does and doesn’t work.

Nicole O’Byrne of University of New Brunswick Law used film as a vehicle to teach the law of evidence; Peabody-award-winning comedian John Oliver even highlighted the far-reaching influence of the Law and Order franchise in 2022. And yet, the gavel has become a potent paradox about fact and fiction that illustrates the important relationship between law and film.

The average TV viewer is often unaware that the “judge’s hammer” is a distinct feature of the American justice system. Canadian judges do not use gavels, and never have. In fact, this mistaken belief was so widespread even the B.C. Provincial Court wrote a blog post on the matter. The stark differences between fact and fiction, and the generally held belief about gavels, demonstrates the subtle impact that legal movies and TV series can have on the broader legal environment outside of blackletter law.

In her 2022 book, Women, Film, and Law: Cinematic Representations of Female Incarceration, (pages 11-13) Suzanne Bouclin of the University of Ottawa developed four general categories of law/film scholarship that capture the many different ways that law/film interact in the streaming era:

  1. “Film’s Law,” the practical legal framework of film production;
  2. “Law in film,” research demystifying blackletter law for students (e.g., Dr. O’Byrne’s evidence seminar in 2020);
  3. “Law and film,” research that looks at the intertextual relationship between law and film;
  4. “Cinematic law,” research examining the affective and aesthetic dimension of law and film to move beyond a traditional literary “close reading.”

“Intertextual relationships” might seem more appropriate for an academic seminar, but the ongoing series Family Law (2021-present) is a dynamic example about the possibilities law and film can hold. Set in downtown Vancouver, the series follows the experience of Abigail Bianchi (Jewel Staite) at her father’s boutique family law firm (played by Victor Garber). The stories themselves often go beyond carving names into cheating spouses’ leather seats or separating couples never ever getting back together. There are regular attempts to engage with broader developing areas of family law, such as family arbitration and the “custody” of pets.

One story arch involves Daniel Svensson (Zach Smadu) acting as mediator for a separating couple who can’t decide what to do with their dog. Although the narrative arch is more comedic than anything else, it directly engages with alternative forms of dispute resolution in family law (e.g., Ontario’s Family Arbitration Regulations, O Reg 134/07) with real legal questions such as Baker v. Harmina, 2018 NLCA 15). The tension between collaborative law and the adversarial model are put on display with many characters critiquing Daniel’s “pro bono activities.”

Despite this promise, the series includes significant flaws that limit its ability to have an impact on the broader discussions occurring within the Canadian family law community. The legal argument and courtroom scenes all carry a decidedly American-flair with limited recognition to the nuances of Canadian family law (e.g., divorce being federal jurisdiction). Worst of all, the Vancouver judges continually wield gavels.  

Many viewers might scoff at such a critique — TV is meant to entertain after all. However, the National Self-Represented Litigants Project noted that 42.2 per cent of self-represented litigants were involved in family-law related disputes. Much like the recognition of Law & Order’s generational impact — or its transtextual references — a decidedly Canadian series, set in Vancouver can be a powerful tool for viewers other than family law practitioners to engage with this continually developing area of law.  

After all, Ontario only recently approved the “Family Legal Services Provider” program that reimagines the entire legal framework of who can represent a party in a family law matter.

In the film A Few Good Men, Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) might have argued that few people could handle “the truth,” but in the digital era “the truth” can’t be ignored. Legal films and TV series can be far more than the “boob tube” of old. When they accurately engage with ongoing themes within an area of law, film and law can be a powerful tool in the access to justice crisis. Accurate information — such as the existence of collaborative family law or the availability of ADR for family law matters — is one small step in creating access to justice for all.  

A member of the bars of Alberta and Ontario, Bo Kruk is an associate at a boutique firm in Edmonton. His graduate work focused on the power of technology in the legal centric world of today.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, LexisNexis Canada, Law360 Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

Photo credit / gorodenkoff ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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