Criminal Justice - Abuse in the system

The closed world of family law, and the the way it deals with women, is the focus of the new series of 'Criminal Justice', Peter Moffat's groundbreaking legal drama. By Gerard Gilbert
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Just as medical dramas don't prepare you for the actual dignity-sapping and often surreal experience of being a hospital patient, so crime dramas are generally no training for the realities of being processed by the justice system. That's perhaps partly why BBC1's Bafta-winning Criminal Justice – scripted by barrister-turned-writer Peter Moffat, and shown over five consecutive nights last year – raised itself above the genre herd. It took the point of view of a bewildered young lad (played by the excellent Ben Whishaw) on a murder rap – and five million viewers remained glued all week as Whishaw's wide-eyed Everyman progressed along an authentic-feeling conveyor belt of world-weary duty solicitors, cynical cops, psychotic fellow prisoners and dodgy barristers (more of whom later). "The whole process... someone commits or doesn't commit a crime, and is arrested and we follow them as they come out the other side... doesn't seem to have been done before", says Moffat.

And now Moffat has gone and done it all again, with a fresh, week-long Criminal Justice following a completely new case, from the commission of the crime (if that's what it turns out to be) to the jury's final verdict. "When I finished the first series I found I still had lots I wanted to say about the criminal justice system", he says. "I wanted to make sure it was different to the first one, so my initial thought was, 'what about women's experience of the same process?'."

The woman whose journey many of us will be following avidly in the new Criminal Justice is Juliet, a mother and wife who is routinely being abused by her husband, Joe, a successful QC. During one bout of marital rape, Juliet calmly goes downstairs, selects a knife, returns to the bedroom and sits watching her by-now sleeping husband...

"Slow-burn provocation is the term", says Moffat. "The law about provocation has always been pretty interesting to me. I'm on her side, but I wanted to put what she did quite close to the end of the spectrum so that in provocation terms she arguably falls inside it, and arguably she doesn't."

Juliet is played by Maxine Peake, the increasingly prominent Bolton-born actress who has progressed from Shameless to Little Dorrit by way of portraying Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murderers.

"It's clear from the start that Juliet's a troubled woman", says Peake. "Outwardly she seems to have the perfect life: a lovely daughter, a beautiful home and a successful, adoring husband. But something's very wrong. Why is she on anti-depressants?".

The reason becomes clear at bedtime, when her husband Joe (creepily played by former Spooks star Matthew Macfadyen) sends Juliet off to the kitchen to fetch a tub of lubricant. She returns with an altogether sharper object that will penetrate without any greased assistance.

"Once her husband is stabbed she's in very deep water", says Peake. "The big question that the police and her lawyers are struggling with is this: is Juliet capable of a cold-blooded attempted murder, or is she a desperate woman, committing a desperate act of self-preservation?"

To help Moffat tell his story, the production has assembled yet another top-notch cast, which includes Sophie Okonedo as the solicitor trying to break through Juliet's mute anguish to get at the truth, Zoe Telford as her defence barrister, Steven Mackintosh and Kate Hardie as police officers, as well as Denis Lawson and Eddie Marsan.

For research into what might happen to Juliet's 13-year-old daughter in such circumstances, Moffat looked closer to home. "My wife used to be a family-law barrister", he says. "Her practice included a lot of work involving children being taken into care and damaged women with children. I have always been struck by the fact that the world of family law is hidden and secret. The public is not permitted to be in those courts at any time, and I think that's probably damaging. Crime is the exact opposite."

Moffat left the Bar ten years ago when he found it clashing with his writing. "I tried doing both but you'd end up thinking, 'I hope my client pleads guilty this morning and I can bugger off and do some writing...'" He went on to script an episode of Kavanagh QC, before creating the short-lived North Square, set in a chambers run by its scheming clerks.

Moffat's original Criminal Justice earned the rebuke of Timothy Dutton QC, Bar Council chairman, who wrote a letter to a national newspaper complaining it was "unjust" to the profession, and showed "barristers acting in breach of their professional obligations". In reply Moffat wrote, "it is about time the Bar faced the fact that, like every other profession, it has brilliant and fair-minded practitioners, those of average ability and the violent, dishonest and stupid working within it."

"A wig and a gown and we think they're all marvellous", he says now. "Lots are, but lots aren't. In the first Criminal Justice it was possible to see that only barristers were behaving badly. With this one there are two ways of looking at it. One of the characters, Sophie Okonedo's solicitor, is arguably too pushy because she wants to help Juliet, to shape what she's thinking. Zoe Telford's barrister character is worried that from a professional point of view... [well] what abuse? Juliet isn't talking about it so there isn't any really. It's an argument that represents two sides of an interesting debate."

For Peake, playing the pawn in this "interesting debate" was a gruelling experience – harder even than playing a Moors Murderer. "This was different," she says. "The thing about playing Myra is that we didn't have to act out any of the scenes of a disturbing nature. And it was a three-week shoot, while this took over three months. I started to feel the strain by the end."

The part was also an eye-opener about the legal system. "It's made me slightly ashamed of how little I know about it", she says. "And females, I imagine, have a different experience of the justice system than men do. It must feel a little archaic and sexist."

Moffat agrees. And women's experience of prison is different again, he says. "Self-harm in women's prisons is absolutely endemic and I've spoken to former prisoners, prison officers, and a former prison governor, who say not only is it endemic, but also very often a blind eye is turned to it by prison staff because some women are doing it under fairly controlled circumstances in that they know how much how they have to hurt themselves in order to deal with the hurt they are feeling.. I didn't know that stuff, I really didn't."

'Criminal Justice' begins on Monday 5 October at 9pm on BBC1

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