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If you read enough criminal fiction does that make you a criminal lawyer?

April 17, 2013

There is nothing like settling down with a great book and a glass of wine on a Friday night after a long week working on case, which seems to be the most mind-numbing case in legal history.  Beyond my own level of boredom, which is sometimes experienced in legal practice, practising law demands from you many things that are not in any of John Grisham’s books.
Criminal fiction is always exciting – and it’s the great book on a Friday night that gives any lawyer escapism from some of the harsh realities of practice.  The entertaining features of any criminal fiction is that the crime will always be an indictable offence with an amazing backstory and a reader is able to know what was in the mind of the accused at the time of committing the offence, which subsequently has a reader sympathising and feeling the accused’s injustice.  However, in reality the accused’s backstory is usually inadmissible in a trial and overall it holds little probative evidentiary value. Today’s criminal fiction overlooks the all-important rules of evidence; criminal procedure and a lack of determination whether the evidence could withstand the high burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt).

Often criminal trials involve technical evidentiary arguments.  These arguments for non-lawyers seem to defy logic, are boring and are confusing, however, for lawyers these arguments make perfect sense and are needed to achieve a fair and just trial in our adversarial legal system.  These technical arguments are what criminal advocates specialise in, by having spent many hours reading, analysing, discussing volumes of legal precedent and having a considerable level of experience.  While many authors correctly identify the correct charge or the criminal offence but simply reading criminal fiction will not adequately equip a reader to understand how the rules of evidence and criminal procedure rules apply.  Helen Gardener’s book entitled Joe Cinque’s Consolation:  A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law offers a superb insider’s account of the frustration people feel when the law and the rules of evidence do not necessarily facilitate the presentation of evidence that others feel are relevant and important.

Criminal fiction is sometimes useful in providing an insight to other jurisdictions.  For example, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest in the Millennium trilogy gives a neat overview of how a criminal matter in a codified jurisdiction is investigated, how the Prosecutor General decides which witnesses will be summoned and how lawyers do not stand to address the court – all features that are different to how the common law jurisdictions conduct a criminal trial.  Reading the Millennium trilogy would certainly not qualify or equip a person with enough skill and knowledge not to engage a lawyer and seek legal advice.  The moral of the story, get legal advice!


Kim Weinert

Kim’s practiced in the areas of industrial/employment law (trade unions and employers) and insurance (plaintiff and defendant). She is an Adjunct Tutor, Faculty of Law at Bond University. The area of research that Kim is currently working on is law for the not-for-profit sector.

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