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Radio soap sidelines solicitors

The 'Bar-centric' trial storyline in The Archers misrepresents the criminal justice system, a former legal adviser to the long-running radio soap has claimed

7 September 2016

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Millions tuned in on Sunday evening to listen to the start of the trial of Helen Titchener, nee Archer, who faces charges of attempted murder or section 18 wounding, after she stabbed her husband.

Over the last three years fans have listened in horror as the outwardly charming Rob slowly but surely ground down his fragile wife, subjecting her to physical and emotional abuse, coinciding with the creation in real life of an offence of controlling and coercive behaviour.

Since the incident, Helen has been attended on in prison umpteen times by her patient, if troubled, barrister, Anna Tregorran.

Rodney Warren, the founder and senior partner of Warren's Law and Advocacy and a past chairman of the Law Society's criminal law committee, was for 14 years the legal adviser to the 65-year-old programme that styles itself as 'an everyday story of country folk'.

He said: 'It's been very unfortunate that the storyline has been developed in such a Bar-centric way, which has given the public the wrong view of the criminal justice process.

'If any listeners find themselves in custody, they will expect a barrister to turn up to visit them twice a week. This will not happen, especially not on legal aid.'

Leaving aside the fact that legal aid would not pay for all of Helen's counsel's trips to the clink, Warren said he is 'concerned that the working of the criminal justice system, in terms of solicitors and barristers working together in the best interest of clients, has not been demonstrated'.

'The barrister character is a good one, but it's a shame she has been portrayed as a one-man band.

'It is a missed opportunity to demonstrate properly how the profession works,' said Warren.

Sandra Paul, a partner at central London firm Kingsley Napley, also noted the absence of a solicitor. 'All the things that would have been done by a solicitor before the trial have been done by the barrister. In practice, the solicitor sets the strategy and gathers the evidence, giving the barrister the tools to use at trial.'

'The Archers has not reflected the collaborative, dual, but different roles,' she added.

Warren suggests there have been some small legal blunders too. He points to the fact that the defence have not been able to talk to Helen's mother or her friend Kirsty because they are prosecution witnesses, and for the same reason, Helen has not been able to see them while on remand.

'In this country there is no property in a witness,' said Warren. 'If a solicitor had been involved, I'd have thought that talking to Helen's mother and her friend Kirsty would have been crucial.'

While it is unusual for defence solicitors to go anywhere near a prosecution witness who has no previous connection with a defendant, here Kirsty and Pat are 'prosecution witnesses by accident, because the prosecution got to them first', said Paul.

'A robust defence solicitor would let the prosecution know that they intend to speak to the witness, advise the witness that they have a choice about speaking to the defence, advise the witness to seek independent legal advice about whether they are willing to assist the defence, and invite the witness to make a further statement or take an account of the information they may be able to provide,' she said.

And, Paul added, the prohibition on speaking to witnesses is usually connected to bail conditions. 'Helen is in custody and has no bail conditions, so anyone would be able to visit her if they wished.'

But, added Warren, 'It's only a drama and they're entitled to do what they like to make it interesting for the listeners'.

The programme is currently advised by barrister Simon Phillips of Birmingham's St Philip's Chambers.

A Radio 4 spokesperson said: 'We have gone to great lengths to research and develop this storyline with legal guidance and help from charities, but as our listeners know, The Archers is a fictional 15-minute programme so on occasion there's some element of dramatic licence involved.

'Given how passionate The Archers fans are about the show, it's no surprise that they - including some from the legal profession - are sharing their interpretations and strategies to help Helen, in addition to Anna's efforts in the Borchester Crown Court.'

The spokesman said: 'Given Pat and Kirsty are witnesses for the prosecution, Anna would have to get permission before she could speak to them. The CPS or police would have been present at any meeting. Therefore anything of use said would be fed back to the prosecution and potentially ruin any advantage to the defence.

'In this case, as Pat and Kirsty have no information which Helen couldn't divulge herself, Anna has decided she does not need to speak to them and alert the prosecution.'

They continued: 'In theory Helen could communicate with Pat and Kirsty and not discuss the case, but as history teaches us that witnesses and defendants don't understand or ignore that rule, then it is standard practice that, apart from exceptional circumstances, defendants and prosecution witnesses are told not to communicate. This protects the defendant and prosecution witnesses from accusations of interference or bias.'

Catherine Baksi is a freelance legal journalist

@legalhackette

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