Feb 102008

I mentioned on the “Turning Cathy into a Lawyer” blog how much I enjoyed Stephen Fry’s (relatively) new TV series, Kingdom, and how PBS really needed to bring it over to America. Happily, they have, and one of my local stations, KTEH, has been showing it on Monday nights. So far they are about halfway through the first season of six shows, and it is well worth tuning in. Or, if you can’t, or if you’d like to catch up on the epidodes you’ve missed, fortunately there’s the Internet to help you out…

The show centers around Peter Kingdom, a small-town solicitor in Norfolk, England. Stephen Fry plays him as an eminently wise and patient jack-of-all-trades, exactly the kind of person you’d want your local lawyer to be. And yet, it’s believable, as along the way we see that Peter is partly the man he was born to be by nature, and partly the man long experience at the job has taught him to be. He’s contrasted by his young “articles clark,” who, while obviously a good soul, is still learning, as Peter’s apprentice, how to distill his youthful idealism into patient practice.

While I think a lay person would definitely enjoy this show, what with it being so well-crafted in every respect, e.g., with sympathetic characters, engaging story lines, inviting scenery, warmth, humor, etc., the fascination for me is in how it portrays the law. As an American lawyer I obviously don’t know to what extent the show might be over-fictionalizing the practice of English law, but the detail in the scripts suggests that at least some effort has gone into not completely glossing over it. Indeed, many aspects of the show (e.g., plots, theme, character development, etc.) are heavily dependent on Peter Kingdom actually being a practicing lawyer. It’s not just an excuse to give him something to do.

In every show of the first season Peter solves one or two legal problems. He deals with matters of probate, insurance, custody, divorce, immigration, contract breach, tenancy, land development, and mediation of all sorts of interpersonal disputes, which really is what all legal disputes boil down to. In fact at one point he tells Lyle, his clerk anxious to file suit in one matter, “Courtrooms are for lawyers like operating theaters are for doctors. Best to stay out of them.”

Whether consciously or not, every matter that Peter takes on ends up revealing volumes about English law and policy. For instance, in several cases the specter of the European Court of Human Rights comes up. Such a reference may sound peculiar to Americans; we are generally wired to believe (whether rightfully or wrongfully, it does seem to be the prevailing cultural myth at any rate) that our human rights are protected by the Constitution, and we look to the US Supreme Court to protect them. But England obviously shares a different constitutional structure, including its submission to the jurisdiction of the European human rights court. That court often sits in judgment over European governments themselves, to make sure that their exercise of their own internal law is done in conformity with the European Convention for Human Rights. This review can consider issues of substantive law, like, as one episode proposes, whether a person has a cognizable claim for discrimination for being refused admission at Cambridge University, as well as whether procedural laws are fair. I couldn’t help but notice how in the first episode of Kingdom, when Mr. Snell — a vexatious, Don Quixote of a client — announces to Peter that in his suit against the city to enjoin certain development, he was going to need legal aid, there was a recent ECHR case to say he might well be entitled to get it. However in neither of these fictional cases, had they taken place in the US, would the litigants likely have been entitled to the redress they sought. Vive la difference, I suppose, or at least save the discussion about whether this is good or bad for another day…

English tort policy is also on full display in the show, notably in one episode where a local dyke-leaping contest, a contest that has been taking place for years and years, is nearly shut down due to health and safety authorities deeming it too risky. Contrast this fiction to the recent news that the famous pancake chase, a Yorkshire Shrove Tuesday contest dating back to medieval times, has been shut down this year for similar reasons, and see how well it may represent the current state of English affairs.

Interestingly most of the cases one way or another involve issues of property law (or, as the English seem to refer to it, “land law”), including land use, eminent domain, squatters’ rights, tenancy and the like. It’s interesting in that so many disputes ultimately center around the disposition of land, and it’s also interesting to compare and contrast how England’s treatment of these issues varies with America’s. Our land law is a direct descendant of ancient English land law, and consequently our basic legal structure maps to that of England. On the other hand, as each country has modernized it has changed its law to match the needs of the times, yet each in its own way. Nonetheless it’s still a very technical area of the law, and it’s interesting to see how our legal cousin’s technicalities play out.

But some issues of law that the show raises are much the same on both shores, and, in a way, that makes sense. I’m speaking in particular of contract law, as in one episode Peter is forced to return a shipment of non-conforming goods — in this case the poles needed for the aforementioned dyke-leaping contest. Our notion of contract law also descends directly from English common law, yet it generally seems to remain more in tact than other areas of inherited law do. We at least both seem to understand breach of contract in similar ways.

I think, though, what really interests me about the law reflected in the show is how it reflects the practice of law in England. England, even being a common law country like the US, has some significant differences in its legal profession, including the bifurcation of the practice between solicitors (e.g., Peter Kingdom) and barristers. It also includes the position of “articles clark,” for which there’s no real parallel in American law.

While it can’t be said that becoming licensed in the US is either simple or speedy, realistically in America one can graduate law school in May and be a full-fledged practicing attorney by December, with no difference in credentialing between someone who’s been licensed for a day and someone who’s been licensed for a decade. Which is not to say that these new lawyers will know what they’re doing, but their on-the-job training will happen as part of an implicit understanding between employer and employee and not as a formal part of the licensing program. Though some people (like me, actually) do end up taking jobs after graduation where, while they await licensing, they are essentially “clerking,” it’s not a mandatory part of the becoming a lawyer process. Many law graduates become formal associates at firms before, and then remain so after, they are admitted to the bar.

The situation is different in most other parts of the world, including England, where becoming a fully-licensed attorney is a much more nuanced process, requiring several years of exams and apprenticeships after graduation before finally being able to call oneself a lawyer. An articles clark, as I understand it, describes the fledgling lawyer during the years of apprenticeship, and the show spends a lot of time focusing on the interplay and mentoring between mature lawyer Peter and his rising clerk Lyle as he comes to learn the trade.

And then there are issues of legal ethics. Too many legal-related shows either ignore them or treat them too superficially to have any semblance of accuracy. I don’t know enough about the rules governing English practice to know whether the show is treating them properly, but it at least does seem like they aren’t being ignored. In fact, issues of ethics and legal duties underpin the entire series. While each episode, at least of the first season, is discrete and can stand on its own, running through the series, and intertwined with the development of all the characters, is a conflict regarding Peter’s brother, his partner in the law firm, who’s been missing and presumed dead. Whether or not he’s actually dead, and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, threaten to hugely implicate both his and Peter’s duties and obligations as lawyers.

At the close of the first season this background narrative seemed poised to come to the fore. While as a viewer I suppose it can add a greater sense of purpose and drama to the show than if it were left to be merely episodic, I would miss it if in later seasons the conflict consumed the show. What I’ve so enjoyed watching, as a lawyer, is Peter Kingdom be a lawyer. He is clearly someone who loves and respects the law, who sees it as a positive tool for achieving justice. His mission as a lawyer is to help people use it. He is a good man, and it is comforting to see him exude a sort of quiet, honorable power as he uses his skill as a lawyer to solve people’s problems. This is something I want to see, that we all need to see, in order to believe it is something the profession can provide. So however the series develops, I hope we can continue to.

 Posted by at 6:47 pm

  4 Responses to “Stephen Fry’s Kingdom, Season One”

  1. Around the web, February 11

    New York officials move to ban unlicensed private ownership of chemical/radiological detection equipment [Volokh, Village Voice] Insurance coverage litigation highlights of 2007 make a better read than anyone had a right to expect [Maniloff/Lexis via R…

  2. I enjoyed reading your article and also have been interested in the TV program “Kingdom.”
    A legal question: In the episode about the illegal immigrant and her son–wouldn’t the child’s birth certificate name the place of birth (Gr. Britain)? In the US, a child born here becomes a US citizen–right? Is that not true in Gr. Britain? Comments made by Peter Kingdom about the baby not having a passport and therefore liable for deportation along with the mother confused me.

  3. I’m not sure. In law school I knew a bit about European immigration law, but the only takeaway I remember at this point is that human rights treaties do reach this kind of situation.
    Still, IIRC from the show I think I too wondered what Peter was talking about, but given the context in which his comments were made — wasn’t it while talking to the dad? — he may simply have been bluffing.

  4. The term used in UK for someone reading for their articles is “an articled clerk”.

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