Could famous case law become new TV shows or movies?

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Reading time: five minutes

Anyone and anything could be the basis of a new TV show or movie nowadays, right?

Individuals, books, comics, video games and the list goes on…some have turned out great, others not so much!

For us lawyers, though, we haven’t seen many case laws adapted into TV dramas or movies. Sure, we’ve had the Vardy v Rooney: a Courtroom Saga as a Channel 4 drama, but that was a very recent one. What about the case laws that we learn about in such depth at university that it’s impossible to forget them? Classic case laws dramatised for our viewing pleasure!

Wondering which legal dramas you can currently watch? Read this blog post.

Donoghue v Stevenson?

The well-known “snail in a root beer” tort law decision. Mrs Donoghue drank a ginger beer her friend bought her and discovered it contained the decomposed remains of a snail. She suffered from severe gastroenteritis as a result. But because she wasn’t party to any contract, she couldn’t claim for breach of warranty. Instead, she issued proceedings against the ginger beer manufacturer and it was eventually heard in the House of Lords where it was held that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to whoever used/consumed its products.

This case established the notion that consumer law can protect customers from defective products, regardless of who uses them. If this was dramatised, perhaps this could be seen as a turning point for consumer law and where we are today with numerous institutions dedicated to upholding consumer rights and educating consumers on their rights, like Which? For the general viewer, this could be interesting viewing, as it gives some insight as to why consumer law is so important. Perhaps this could be the payoff at the end of the story that gets viewers talking about it.

Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co?

Often known as the “contract with the world” case, which questioned whether Carbolic Smoke Ball Co’s advertisement was an offer or an invitation to treat. The company advertised its product in newspapers stating that anyone who used them and still contracted influenza would receive a £100 reward. Mrs Carlill purchased them, used them as directed, contracted influenza, and attempted to claim the £100 from the company. The outcome was that the advertisement was a unilateral contract since there was an offer (the advert), acceptance (Mrs Carlill completing the conditions) consideration (payment for the product) and intention to create legal relations.

The subject here is the technical knowledge of whether this advertisement was an offer or an invitation to treat. However, this might not be enough to entice viewers outside of the legal and business communities as the payoff!

Re A (Conjoined Twins) (2001)?

In this case, parents appealed against a decision to operate on their conjoined twins. One twin had brain abnormalities, no lungs and relied on the other for blood. They couldn’t live a normal life and would suffer as they grew up still conjoined. The other would be able to function normally and live a normal life. The court took the parents’ views into consideration but argued that the welfare of the children was paramount. The Court of Appeal likened it to a doctor removing life-sustaining treatment for a patient with no hope of recovery.

There have been plenty of TV dramas and movies that explore the moral ambiguity and pressure around “trading lives” – namely sacrificing one to save another – particularly if there’s a real closeness. The moral implications of any decision here are plentiful, and questions like this are likely to get everyone talking about them. 

But then begs the question, could they work?

Popular culture can change very quickly; recently it’s been comprised of superheroes, medieval-style fantasy like Game of Thrones, and adaptations of books and video games like The Last of Us and The Witcher. These are entertaining because they invite us into a well-constructed world, often one that’s already been developed by its original source material.

If the focus is just on the legal process and the fact that it’s common and rather technical academic knowledge that students should all have, I doubt it’d appeal to those viewers who would generally watch movies or TV shows to escape or be entertained. Not every viewer, lawyer or otherwise, wants to watch legal dramas, such as Suits or Partner Track, after a full day of legal practice work.

Wondering about Netflix’s latest legal drama? Check out this blog post on Partner Track.

Because they appeal to such a niche interest, who could play these real life characters? Sure, established names bring star power, interest and high-level performances to whatever they’re cast in. But if the audience is likely going to be low, and the budget for creating these shows is understandably low too, then lesser-known actors will be more financially accessible for producers. And who knows, this might give them their time to shine!

Then what about the need of the production companies and the networks that would broadcast or stream the show? Many TV shows get cancelled quickly if there’s such low engagement and quality that the network feels the best move is to cut their losses. If there’s such a low turnout for a series covering classic case laws, there won’t be any incentive for the network or producers to continue.

It’s not an easy one because, on one hand, it’d be nice to see something made with us in mind since there are thousands of law students, graduates and aspiring lawyers in the country. But on the other, while this type of viewing may appeal to us, it may not appeal to the wider population due to their technical background and because of the commercial viability of these to the networks that produce them.  

Still, it’s an interesting thought. If you wanted to make a dramatisation of classic case law, which would you choose?

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