: Crownies


Francesca Bartlett

altlj-2012-37-1-crownies-coverProduced by Screentime for ABC1 TV, Series 1 (22 episodes) screened July-December 2011;
starring Andrea Demetriades, Indiana Evans, Todd Lasance, Hamish Michael, Ella Scott Lynch.

Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery AM QC, exclaims ‘OH DEAR!’ in his review of the first episodes of ABC legal drama Crownies screened last year.1 Yet, his is not a damning assessment of the series; he simply refers to factual errors in this fictional representation of the lawyers and workings of the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (‘DPP’). He points out that the series actually draws its title from a Victorian expression for a prosecutor (in NSW, a ‘crownie’ is a drink) and that it refers to a charge document as a ‘presentment’ (rather than an ‘indictment’, as it is called in NSW). Are these serious criticisms or simply a finicky lawyer finding fault with a drama? Perhaps it is both, and therein lays the difficulty, as well as the appeal, of the series.

On the one hand, Crownies strives for accuracy in the theme, terminology and portrayal of an over-worked public prosecutor’s office, complete with an unending series of disturbing violent and sexual offences to pursue. The series revolves around five junior solicitors who must learn the ropes and demonstrate their memory of law school criminal principles and procedure to their superiors. In this way, the show plausibly introduces a lay audience to the nuances of establishing an offence or rebutting a possible defence. The ‘walk and talk’ technique — where the lawyers chase each other around the office debating law — is arguably justified as dramatically, if not perhaps accurately, representing the demands of this busy workplace. The multiple foci of the series, with each junior solicitor, and occasionally a senior lawyer as the protagonists for an episode (or a part thereof), also permit it to canvass many hot legal and social issues posed by the cases handled by each character every day. Getting the legal and working details right provides a fascinating insight into how the criminal justice system and its prosecuting lawyers operate.

On the other hand, Crownies feels at times to be lost in direction between a legal soap opera and an expensive law primer. As Cowdery comments: ‘Perhaps the series could become a valuable training tool with ‘’spot the procedural/ethical/legal irregularity’’ being the standard question’. It is doubtful that this fictional series was intended as a ‘training tool’. In the first episode, we are introduced to the young solicitors as attractive, hard drinking and sexy: we see the scantily dressed Tatum strutting off to a drunken Christmas party; later in the night Erin, Linda and Ben each go back to the office and have sex, respectively, with a court reporter, a police officer and a judge’s associate. Richard, rendered homeless by a recalcitrant tenant, is sleeping in the office, introducing a storyline which provides some comic relief. This racy beginning indicates that it is by no means supposed to be a dry, or necessarily faithful, depiction.

The series employs a mixture of approaches to cases and character development. The legal cases range from the fraught prosecution of the Attorney-General for sexual assault, which runs throughout the 22 episodes, to single episode matters which are the basis for discussion in the office as to whether they ought to be prosecuted or shown through to trial. The weighty issues raised often represent a personal challenge for many of the characters: the pregnant lesbian senior crown prosecutor is ambivalent in her prosecution of an 11-year-old boy for killing his brother; Ben deals with his desire for revenge for the assault and resulting death of his grandfather (a matter prosecuted by Richard); Erin is traumatised by the experience of arguing against ‘battered woman’s syndrome’ as a defence for murder. These are interesting and topical cases, usually debated in sophisticated dialogue. Crownies is not intended to talk down to viewers. Indeed, it uses frequent ‘legalese’ for which an eager lay person can seek a translation on the Crownies website.2 Yet, there are so many cases featured, and sparsely dramatically pursued, that at times episodes feel oddly disjointed or unfinished. Too many hot topics — such as the probity of genetic propensity to crime evidence which receives only part of an episode’s consideration — are raised for an intellectual debate but provide little dramatic weight. Similarly, the ethical challenges these cases raise for the characters are often fleeting (operating only for that episode).

For the sympathetic viewer, the myriad files convey a sense of a busy office and raise concerns about the inability of the office, and the law, to satisfactorily resolve all the issues. Erin, who embodies the ‘moral activist’ figure searching for justice in the system and driven by the instrumental goal of ‘helping people’, exclaims that she only gets her ‘head around’ one file when another six land on her desk. She also faces the reality that women are more often made victims of the law even while it is equally applied. Throughout the series she experiences a slow disillusionment in her role and perhaps the system of criminal justice itself. For me, her struggle is the most interesting in the series. Crownies seriously asks not just whether you can be a ‘good person and a good lawyer’3 but whether criminal law can deliver justice. If the answer is ‘no’, how does a young solicitor continue to do such a job? Crownies bravely admits that sometimes the answer may be to walk away from it.

The location of the drama within the offices of the DPP, rather than primarily in court, also provides novel and fertile ground for addressing ethical dilemmas. The chief requirement of prosecutors is as ‘ministers of justice’ rather than advocates for a conviction. The day-to-day 
implications of this are set out in various Rules4 which bind prosecutors to scrupulous ‘fairness’ including duties beyond those of the defence to assist the court to ‘arrive at the truth’.5 Another principle binding prosecutors is to take decisions in the ‘public interest’.6 Of long academic and professional debate, Crownies provides compelling examples of the ethical difficulties imposed by these guiding principles such as whether to prosecute a distraught and repentant father for killing his child by mistakenly leaving him in the car. Ben argues strongly that there is no ‘public interest’ in prosecuting; the Director ultimately decides there is some ‘general deterrence’ value in doing so. The missing memo which documents discussions of whether to prosecute the Attorney-General raises related thorny issues as to how much evidence is required to prosecute, the necessity not to inflame a controversial case, and how to deal with the often politicised nature of a prosecution. The DPP is a government office but its Director and lawyers must be separate from the state.7 The Attorney-General storyline ultimately paints the office as courageous and upholding law (if not justice). Yet it also hints at difficulties beyond the law when the Crownies office is forced into budget cuts in apparent retribution. Crownies dares a peek into the complex role of lawyers in driving this crucial cog in criminal justice process in Australia even before the lawyers step into courtroom. Indeed, where the action is taken into the more standard courtroom drama it loses much of its focus.

As John Jackson commented of the United Kingdom, these ethical goalposts ‘can serve to mask the reality that prosecutors are there to argue for conviction and may give the misleading impression that they may override “unjust” laws in the interest of justice’.8 This is a challenge in theory and in the practise of criminal prosecution; it is even more of a temptation for a legal drama. William Simon has noted of common popular representations of lawyers, ‘the way to virtue involves transgression and resourcefulness’.9 Thus, in many Hollywood representations ‘good’ lawyers are often vigilantes, bending or breaking the law for a ‘just’ end. Crownies avoids this narrative portrayal of lawyers, as the young solicitors repeat the mantra of ‘go to first principles’ to deal with most problems they encounter. In the majority of cases, legal process, while often harsh, is nevertheless not portrayed as manifestly unjust or inadequate. For instance, in one episode, Richard dreads prosecuting his climate scientist ‘hero’ for punching an obnoxious and annoying climate change doubter. The law prevails against the ‘right’ person10 but we do not see this as an injustice or Richard as a bad person (a $1000 fine is dismissed as ‘worth it’ by the professor). This is an optimistic portrayal.

However, the series does concede that following the law is sometimes incompatible with the personal wellbeing of its practitioners. Experienced prosecutor, Tony, drowns his guilty conscience about a case he lost long ago (involving two dead children), with sarcasm, alcohol and drugs. Young lawyer Erin increasingly feels that criminal process hurts people, and its practise hurts her as she also drinks excessively. Tony is ultimately handed the Directorship, indicating that he has learnt to live with the compromises of the role, however Erin leaves the DPP. In contrast, the other characters advise each other on how to separate their work from their personal lives: Linda tells Erin to think of the victim and the crime in purely legal, rather than personal, terms. The Director tells senior prosecutor (Janet) that the way he copes is to go home to the wife and kids. The overwhelming message is that law is the only proper resource for the prosecutors. Is this a correct assertion when it overwhelmingly ignores victims of crime and other social considerations? Crownies raises these as possibilities but gives the impression of a standard conception of ethical lawyering: stick to the law and leave the rest to personal life.

Crownies may not always get all the details right but it raises many key ethical questions involved in prosecution and lawyering generally. In this sense, it resembles many other legal dramas. My students regularly quote the more comical Boston Legal in their legal ethics essays. There is a role for such shows to educate and challenge public views of law and lawyering. Lawyer viewers of Crownies may cringe at its inaccuracies, but are best to remember that drama is perhaps the most compelling way to challenge persistent stereotypes. If there are future series planned, the writers of Crownies should allow themselves the licence to play loose with the truth and to concentrate on providing compelling drama which entertains, educates and persuades.

FRANCESCA BARTLETT teaches legal ethics in the T C Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland.


1. Nicholas Cowdery, ‘A title that’s out of this state’ Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney), 17 July 2011, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/a-title-thats-out-of-this-state-20110715-1hgiw.html.
2. Legalese: Ben McMahon’s Legal Terms for Dummies (2012), http://www.abc.net.au/tv/crownies/legalese/default.htm.
3. Charles Fried, ‘The Lawyer as Friend: The moral foundations of the lawyer-client relationship’ (1976) 85 Yale Law Journal 1060.
4. Rule 23 A62-72 Revised Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 1995 (NSW). See also Rule 29 of the Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules drafted by the Law Council of Australia which replicates these duties for solicitors, to be in force across Australia soon.
5. Nicholas Cowdery, Ethics and the Role of a Prosecutor (NSW, 1997) 32.
6. See Prosecution Policy and Guidelines of the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, issued pursuant to s 13 of Director of Public Prosecutions Act 1986 (NSW).
7. Price v Ferris (1994) 34 NSWLR 704, 707 (Kirby P).
8. John Jackson, ‘The Ethical Implications of the Enhanced Role of the Public Prosecutor’ (2006) 9(1) Legal Ethics 35, 37.
9. What he calls ‘moral pluck’. William Simon, ‘Moral Pluck: Legal Ethics in popular culture’ (2001) 101 Columbia Law Review 422, 429.
10. Indeed, Richard wins the case against his hero in a courtroom scene remarkably like another famous courtroom drama moment, in A Few Good Men, where the protagonist badgers the witness into telling the truth. In that case, the lawyer breaks a number of ethical rules of conduct in order to achieve a ‘just’ outcome.

(2012) 37(1) AltLJ 68
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