Helen’s trial In ‘The Archers’ shows juries get it right

15 September 2016

Who hasn’t heard of the Archers storyline involving the relationship between Helen Titchener (nee Archer) and her coercive and controlling husband Rob, which has catapulted the 65-year-old Radio 4 series into the forefront of public attention recently?

Those who used to dismiss The Archers as the mundane navel gazing of rural folk and its affected middle class characters have been lured by an EastEnders-style script with shocks, twists and cliffhangers that has enthralled and enraged listeners and had them coming back for more.

While The Archers always previously made mention of the culture, politics and economics affecting farmers and the landowning community, it can no longer be accused of existing in a vacuum that made it largely irrelevant to most who were not part of little England.

For me, what is amazing about the programme’s recent storyline is that it foreshadowed issues which resulted in new legislation in the UK at a time when the issue was not being discussed; the story line started in 2013 yet it was not until 2015 that the behaviour it depicted was criminalised in the England and Wales.

It also perfectly illustrated the fact that people who we think of as “criminals” or “defendants” are not “other” people. For the most part they are regular people, who because of circumstances find themselves at the wrong end of the law and having to explain their behaviour. If perfectly proper, kind and honest people like Helen can find themselves in custody then anyone can.

Before the jury started their deliberations, I put my professional reputation at risk in predicting that Helen would be acquitted. My confidence did not come from what we heard about the preparation of Helen’s case and the respective roles of her barrister Anna Tregorran and solicitor Dominic. Indeed, while accepting that this is an entertainment programme and that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, the portrayal of what is involved in preparing, representing and presenting a case like this, missed a real opportunity to explain the process authentically, warts and all.

Some parts of the story were dealt with badly. For instance, Dominic, Helen’s solicitor, was completely ineffective at the police station. Helen had been arrested having inflicted life-threatening injuries when she stabbed her husband Rob, several times, after he goaded her to kill herself in the culmination of several years of coercive and controlling behaviour. Dominic failed to assist Helen in laying the evidential foundation for self-defence. I accept he could not have known the harrowing details of her account at that time, but like many criminal litigation lawyers (and a great deal of the public) we could not help but shout at the radio imploring him to do something in the police interview to raise the issue of self-defence.

Other parts were dealt with incredibly well. For example, the fact that Helen was not able to discuss the sexual violence to which she had been subjected until she was actually in the stand giving her evidence. The fact that it was not raised before then did not make it any less true but meant it was evidence that could easily have been excluded to the detriment of the administration of justice.

My confidence in Helen’s acquittal was based on the jury system. It is by far, the pinnacle of our Criminal Justice System. Even if many things go wrong, as they did for Helen, having worked at the interface of our jury system for 13 years, I can say with confidence that in the vast majority of cases, British juries get it right.

What 12 jurors do is apply their common sense and collective experience to the evidence presented in court. So when they see Rob barely controlling his contempt as he spits venomous words at Helen and Jess (his ex-wife) from the witness box they ask themselves, if that is how he behaves now, in this formal sanitised setting, how might he behave at home? The collective responsibility jurors take to ensure the integrity of the decision process sounded like bickering at times but was in fact a great illustration of what I hope actually goes on in a jury deliberation room. Nowhere near as classy as Twelve Angry Men but just as effective.

I was not previously an Archers fan but over the period of this storyline, I have come to enjoy the comings and goings of rural England. The gumption to take on such a controversial topic is to be applauded and has resulted in the Archers becoming a guilty pleasure for me and many others.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

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