Questions of law in TV dramas - are we bothered?
Law is part and parcel of daily life, and it can provide a useful and intriguing theme in film and TV dramas. Who could forget the 80’s thriller Body Heat, starring Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, not for its plot twists and steamy scenes but its fascinating examination of the rule against perpetuities? When you practice law, somehow you just can’t switch off.
The inability for me to switch off was very much in evidence the other evening, when I channel surfed my way to new ITV drama “Finding Alice”, featuring many acclaimed actors. It tackles a difficult subject, namely grief following an untimely family death, bringing moments that are poignant, darkly comic and often emotional. It’s reasonably watchable as entertainment during lockdown, but there were one or two “legal things” that ground my gears.
The first was the proposition that the deceased’s parents, who were given his house, had received an inheritance tax bill upon his death, requiring them to sell the house to pay it. How could his parents reveal that they had received a tax demand literally a day or so after their son’s death? Were HMRC officials lying in wait outside the door of the new smart house as the son fell down the stairs? What about rights of occupation for the family members living there?
The story line also seems to indicate that their son was an enthusiastic builder, but very short of money and with many nasty creditors. If he was, it seems, insolvent when he transferred the house, wouldn’t creditors of the estate challenge it on the basis that the deceased was seeking to avoid paying them?
Then there was the web search at Companies House, which purportedly showed that having each been named there, the deceased’s business partner and real life partner must therefore be, well, equal partners. As far as I am aware, Companies House will show in its records under “People” the names and addresses of officers and persons with significant control, but not a list of shareholders. To get a list of all shareholders, you would need to pull up confirmation statements in the filing history. Leaving that aside, how would the mere listing of the two individuals prove that they owned exactly the same class and percentage of shares?
Then there were the references to probate, the deceased having left no Will (although there was no suggestion that a Will Search had been carried out). This would require an application for letters of administration, not a grant of probate. However, these two processes can collectively be referred to as probate, so I have to take this one back. This was a shame, because Alice’s solicitor father is none other than Nigel Havers, whose own father was Sir Michael Havers, who served as the UK’s Attorney General for many years and briefly as Lord Chancellor. (OK, that’s in real life).
I mentioned these things to a colleague who specialises in estate planning work, only to find that she had another bee in her bonnet, namely why Alice repeatedly intimated that she wasn’t entitled to anything as they weren’t married. This raises the issue of “common law husband and wife”, which doesn’t actually exist. However, Alice could make a claim for “reasonable provision” from the estate as a person who has cohabited with the deceased for a period of two years or more prior to the date of death. The show also glossed over the possibility of Alice perhaps having a life interest in the residuary estate, to ensure she was reasonably provided for.
But, as Catherine Tate would ask, “Are we bothered?” Well, for many I’m sure the answer is no. However, for me, given my professional curiosity it does detract a bit from the overall piece. Of course, the makers of the drama may have thought about these things but decided that for dramatic or creative reasons, this was the way the story would be told, or they took a different view of the legalities, or didn’t think that it mattered. In all cases, I suppose that’s fair enough. This is, ultimately, about entertaining and informing the TV audience about a tough issue, not an opportunity for lawyers to explain how taking advice would not have lessened the grief, but would have avoided a lot of the stresses that came with it.
It did get me thinking, though, about other dramas where specialists may also be taking a keen interest in the subject matter and sometimes grinding their teeth. In space dramas like Star Trek, are physicists and mathematicians there with their notebooks checking out the rocket science? Do GPs, surgeons and nursing staff agonise whilst watching surgical operations in Holby City? Do pathologists shout “not like that!” at the telly during post-mortems in the latest police drama?
It also reminded me of days in front of the TV growing up, when the elders would criticise the uniforms worn by soldiers as incorrect or not in keeping with their rank, or dresses in costume dramas that were not of that period. I thought they should all chill out. Now I empathise a bit more.
So, I will take the advice of my younger self, chill out and get out a bit more (as and when that’s possible). However, if there are any TV companies out there that need a legal adviser to double check a few points, I’d be happy to help.
(With thanks to my colleagues Michelle Penn and Charlotte Pritchard for their valuable contributions to the above and a lively exchange of views on the show. Rumours of a BLM “Finding Alice” What’s App group are, however, exaggerated).