Can movies right the wrongs of miscarriages of justice inflicted by legal systems? They have the dramatic and persuasive tools that are increasingly helpful, writes Dr Mara Malagodi, assistant professor with The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Law is photogenic: it is mesmerising to those who look on it from the outside, and at the same time it is a blunt yet sophisticated instrument that bestows authority on those who wield it. The language, attire, and temples in which legal rituals are performed remain the exclusive domain of the initiated. The uninitiated at most passively occupy the spectators’ gallery.

The mystery and impenetrability of both legal settings and performances reinforce the authority of law in its uniqueness. As such there is an intrinsic cinematic quality to the practice of law. The theatrics of the courtroom, the antics of lawyers, and the dramatic nature of litigation make for compelling viewing.

But there is more to law films than mere visual attraction and narrative engagement. They have long captivated lay audiences because they allow them to explore the realm of law through the looking glass of celluloid. The film director provides them with a key and a passport to enter the legal domain. These films educate, inform, admonish, threaten, reassure, engross, terrify, frustrate, incense, and enthuse the public about the possibilities of law.

The cinematic experience of law also makes legal processes personal to audiences as they become emotionally invested in legal outcomes. Law films provide a degree of agency to the legally uninitiated by turning viewers into authoritative juries, frightened witnesses, intrepid justice-seekers, and at times frustrated avengers. This is both captivating and emboldening given the ubiquitous presence and pervasiveness of law in modern life. Scholars in the emerging discipline of ‘law and film’ such as Kamir, Robson, Sarat, Silby, Sherwin, Wan, Young and many others have explored these themes extensively.

Traditionally the dramatic engine of law films lies in the unresolved tensions between law and justice as distinct but overlapping spheres. The message we receive over and over from films depicting legal actors and processes is that the law inevitably does (or at least has the potential to) fall short of both justice ideals and delivery. Whether the fallibility of law and its stewards is depicted on film as structural or contingent, audiences invariably experience anxieties about legal proceedings. In the end, the law is the handmaid of the powerful.

Much has been made about its emancipatory potential and in some cases legal activism has yielded incredible results. But overall, law remains what was always designed to be, even in a democracy: a tool for efficient governance, a coercive instrument of control, and an ideological apparatus to preserve the status quo. As such a run-in with the law inevitably entails a gamble, and in the worst-case scenario may result in a gross miscarriage of justice.

As law becomes ubiquitous, law films have raised the legal consciousness of non-lawyers. Conversely, they have strengthened the belief that film has vis-à-vis law an equally valid claim to truth-finding, especially when law translates into injustice. As a result, film has been increasingly enlisted to rectify miscarriages of justice.

The growing genre of ‘true crime documentaries’ (Bruzzi) has seen filmic interventions into the domain of law to change the outcome of legal proceedings. In other cases, where law cannot possibly offer any redress for past injustice, film has sought to substitute itself to the legal process in search for truth. Somehow this must be working given the frequency and intensity of knee-jerk reactions the world over to censor films challenging official narratives about past injustice.

Dr Mara Malagodi is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a comparative constitutional lawyer and socio-legal scholar with a linguistically informed specialism in South Asian law and politics (in particular Nepal, India, and Pakistan), human rights law, gender and law, legal history, and law and film. She is a non-practicing barrister in England and Wales, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.