Artistic License – Law
aka: Artistic Licence Law

Strong Bad: This is a sub-poe-eena! I summons Exhibit 4-B to my chambers!
Homestar Runner: Sustained! (hits self in face with gavel)

This is a listing of liberties taken with how law is presented.

Frequently an Acceptable Break From Reality in that real litigation takes months, not minutes, and almost none of it happens in court. But watching lawyers read mountains of documents and write briefs isn't something anyone really wants to do. Lawyers don't, because if you're going to watch someone do legal work you may as well do it yourself (and get paid), and laypeople audiences don't because it's boring as hell. So while most depictions of legal procedures outside of literature have very little to do with the way law is actually practiced, most people are okay with this, because real legal procedures tend to be No Fun At All.

Note that laws vary across different countries and jurisdictions. What may be therefore seen as an example of this by people from one region may actually be valid legal procedure in another, and vice versa. (This can also be noted for historical works — most legal systems have been fine-tuned over centuries; go back 200 years and chances are court procedures are comparatively sloppy.) Also note that as with all Acceptable Breaks from Reality, this can get out of hand, particularly when it's the substance of the law, not the procedure, that the creators are screwing up.

NOTE: This should not be listed on a work's page as a trope.


Subtropes:

  • Ambulance Chaser: Depends on jurisdiction, but on some (such as Europe) being one of these is extremely illegal, and more lenient jurisdictions still have a very dim view of this.
  • Amoral Attorney: Attorneys are supposed to be impartial and give all clients the best representation that they can possibly provide. If they absolutely cannot represent a client in good faith, they have an ethical obligation to relieve themselves of their duty; the level of moral bankruptcy that is often seen in fiction would have gotten most attorneys suspended or disbarred a long time ago.
  • Bail Equals Freedom: Bail is treated as an easy way to skip a future trial and possible sentencing. In real life, it's a monetary guarantee that the accused will show up for trial and "jumping bail" is a crime in itself, and flight risks or those who pose a clear and present threat to the community will not be granted bail.
  • Chalk Outline: Not done in Real Life. It contaminates the scene. May have been occasionally used in the distant past, before cameras.
  • Chewbacca Defense: Creative or unorthodox tactics have a place in law. Frivolous and/or sophistic ones do not. A good judge will tell an attorney who is using one to cut the shit and quit wasting the court's time.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Just because you marry someone from another country, doesn't mean you automatically become a citizen of that country.note 
  • Conviction by Contradiction: While a legal case has to hold together logically to some extent, "logic dictates that this must be what happened" is not sufficient for a conviction in a criminal case. In a civil case, the principle of res ipsa loquitur (The thing speaks for itself) applies, and it basically amounts to "We can't prove the specific sequence of events that led to the defendant wronging us, but there is no possible innocent explanation" or "There's no legitimate reason for the event occurring in the first place, so no matter what their explanation is, they're still liable". Furthermore, an investigation that seems to be running solely on the fact someone used the wrong grammar on his statement as "the clue" would probably be dismissed as harassment.
  • Conviction by Counterfactual Clue: A defendant's statement, testimony, or alibi, or a witness's testimony is not automatically and completely discredited just because it contains one item that isn't absolutely true.
  • Cops Need the Vigilante: Law Enforcement Officers and agencies cannot hire or use someone else to circumvent their own rules.
  • Courtroom Antic: Many of these common in fiction would result in the lawyer being warned, and possibly removed from the case or punished for contempt of court. Major antics could be cause for the verdict to be overturned on appeal (See "Off on a Technicality"), or could cause the judge to declare a mistrial, and a consistently ill-behaved lawyer would risk disbarment.
  • Crime of Self-Defense: What is and is not "self-defense" is very complicated and thorny legal ground and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Telling the nice police officer "But it was self-defense!" won't keep you out of court.
  • Disregard That Statement: There are types of questions an attorney simply may not ask a witness in court. There are types of statements a trial attorney may not make in court. Asking such questions or making such statements deliberately, then backing down from it with "Disregard that" or "Withdrawn" is a risky tactic for a trial lawyer. The courts do have the power to sanction a lawyer who does this excessively or blatantly, not to mention the risk of creating something appeal-worthy. As a rule, the sort of things that gets said in fiction would get most lawyers in a world of hurt.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Divorce has a way of bringing out the absolute worst in people, but the scorched-earth behavior that is often seen in fiction can and will lead to sanctions against both the offending party and their attorney.
  • Eagleland Osmosis: People in every country have seen a lot of American Law Procedurals, and often assume the law works similarly when making one set in their own country. Blame Hollywood.
  • Emancipated Child: Truth in television, though less common and less easy than TV would have you believe. There has to be evidence that the parents are unfit to take care of them, that there are no relatives willing or able to act as legal guardians, that they are sufficiently mature and capable of making good decisions, and that the child can reasonably support themselves (meaning that they can demonstrate that they are currently financially self-sufficient and will continue to be, as well as being unlikely to apply for welfare or resort to illegal sources of income.) They will not be granted custody of younger siblings at the same time, either.
  • Empty Cop Threat: They may try it. But they do so knowing it's an empty threat.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: In the past, it was used (hence references to "rubber hoses" or "the third degree" or vague threats by cops to "take you down to the station and see how tough you are" in many Hard Boiled Detective novels.) Now, even suggesting it is a no-go.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: At best, it's stupid. At worst, it's evidence-tampering. And it's not up to the cop investigating the scene to figure out what a mysterious substance is, anyway. That's what the crime lab is for.
  • A Fool for a Client: In real life, representing oneself pro se is generally a really bad idea, but there is little truth to the notion that all pro se litigants are either crazy or have no case. Most are just people of limited means trying to resolve a problem to the best of their ability.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: Lawyers are required by law to make a reasonable inquiry into the facts of every case before filing, in order to reasonably ensure that it is legitimate; if they fail to do so, they can face sanctions. In Real Life, most frivolous suits are simply thrown out of court.
  • Grade-School CEO: Minors (especially those under the age of 12) in most developed nations cannot sign contracts or hold employment. When a parent dies, leaving control of major assets to their child or children, a Trust or Conservatorship will be created by the court to manage the assets and look after the best interest of the child, if the parent didn't create one in their will.
  • Hero Insurance: In Real Life, such things as "Good Samaritan" Laws exist to help people prevent from getting sued if they have to help with an emergency — but only within reason. Not getting sued if you hurt someone while applying the Heimlich Maneuver is "within reason". Demolishing five city blocks while pursuing a criminal as a vigilante is not. And also needs be said — Good Samaritan Laws don't force you to help.
  • High-Altitude Interrogation: Like other types of Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique / Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, information obtained through them would be seen as illegally acquired (and unreliable because it was given under torture) and a serious backfire on the career of anybody who so much as proposes it would ensue.
  • Hilarity Sues: Seriously depends on the application and the jurisdiction. There are times when (seen from the outside in) it would be perfectly legal to apply them (yet Fiction Isn't Fair), but other times it falls under the purview of Frivolous Lawsuit and all the issues it implies (explained above).
  • Hollywood Law
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: Considering the fact that we have not made actual extraterrestrial contact, it is impossible to determine how this Trope would actually work out in Real Life—and yet, long story short, the one court case known that could be considered precedent for the ruling of "if you're an extraterrestrial, you have no rights" is very visibly a judge's use of Laser-Guided Karma on a Frivolous Lawsuit's plaintiff. Several jurisdictions (such as Scotland) apply murder under a broad sense of "willful destruction of life", and there are 70 nations that currently have laws forbidding human cloning — should it ever become possible.
  • Insanity Defense: In real life, if an insanity defense works, the defendant doesn't walk out of court a free person. They walk out of court in the company of a couple of burly orderlies from a mental institution. Whether they ever walk out of there a free person depends on the psychiatrists and psychologists. Their stay can very well be longer than what their prison sentence would have been. Also, an insanity defense is only used in less than 1% of US criminal trials, and is successful ~25% of the time. That's less than one quarter of one one-hundredth of criminal cases that it works.
  • Insurance Fraud and Real Estate Scam: They happen, but real-life insurance and fair-housing investigators are much wiser to the usual tricks than fictional ones tend to be.
  • Interrogation by Vandalism: Damage to property (or threatening to) is illegal anyway, let alone when used to get information.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Varies depending on jurisdiction. Varies wildly.
  • Made Out to Be a Jerkass: A very risky move on a Real Life court of law. Even the biggest jerk in the galaxy can have an actual legal grievance, so trying to redirect the blame to make the plaintiff look like an asshole just makes the defendant look like a Manipulative Bastard—also, this is why juries are instructed and screened to try to keep bias out of the equation (although it doesn't always succeed).
  • Motive Equals Conclusive Evidence: Having a reason to commit the crime is not enough evidence to put you in jail nor for the investigators to stop looking for answers.
  • Murder Simulators: Varies by jurisdiction.
  • Must State If You're a Cop: Undercover officers are under no obligation to inform criminals that they're police even when asked about it point-blank.
  • No Badge? No Problem!: In real life, the police take a very dim view of people acting like they have legal authority when their position does not give it. In this case what varies by jurisdiction is not whether you'll get in trouble for doing it, but how deep the trouble will be.
  • Not Proven: Truth in Television. It's not enough for the police and prosecutors to say "well, who else could it have been?" — they have to have a sufficiently strong legal case against a specific person, built on admissible evidence and through witness testimony.
  • No Warrant? No Problem!: Varies by jurisdiction, but broadly speaking it is illegal in most jurisdictions (either barging into a house to obtain evidence without a warrant or stalking a suspect for the sake of Perp Sweating).
  • Off on a Technicality: A case being "dismissed on a technicality" almost always means that the police (during their investigation) or the prosecutor (during the trial) screwed up big-time and did something that they aren't allowed to do, or didn't do something that they are required to do. In some cases it means that the prosecutor chose the wrong charges to file.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: As a general rule of thumb, in small towns you'll find "country lawyers" who do a little of everything, for typically small stakes. For cases involving large sums of money or very complex, specialized areas of law, you'll want an attorney who specializes in that area, and in fact, most small-town lawyers will "tag-team" with a specialized lawyer to take a case to court. It's just like the difference between a general-practice physician and a specialized surgeon.
  • One Phone Call: In the US, you don't have to be given "one phone call". You have to be given a reasonable opportunity to get in touch with legal counsel.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: You are always entitled to legal counsel, whether you have committed the crime you are accused of or not. Using that right does not make you look guilty by default, and having a lawyer present can protect you from a wide range of things.
  • The Perry Mason Method: The defense does not have to find the "real" culprit — to establish reasonable doubt, all a competent defense attorney needs to do is weaken the prosecution's case to "not proven" and/or posit another theory of events.
  • Plea Bargain: The reality varies widely by jurisdiction. In the US, where it's most common, the biggest difference between fact and fiction is when it's offered; in Real Life, a plea bargain is almost never offered once the trial has begun.
  • Precrime Arrest: For the most part, the current justice systems around the world make a serious emphasis on "innocent until proven guilty" and "punishment after the crime". Attempting to capture someone before a crime has been committed (and there is no solid evidence of criminal conspiracy to support the suspicion) would be seen as wrongful arrest or even entrapment... and this is without taking into account the sci-fi angle of the Trope (which could be seen as violation of privacy, plus whichever discussion would ensue if there is a possibility, however small, for the criminal to say "Screw Destiny"...)
  • Rape and Revenge: The type of premeditated manhunts that are standard to this trope would be considered straight-up murder, especially when it's someone other than the victim themselves doing it. (See also Crime of Self-Defense).
  • Read the Fine Print: Contract law is as wildly varied and thorny as self-defense law, but as a rule of thumb you must to be able to read it.
  • Reading Your Rights: Varies wildly by jurisdiction.
  • Sensitivity Training: A regular workplace comedy trope in fiction, an actual legal necessity in Real Life. Companies that are able to show that employees were told what not to do (and yet did it anyway) in a sexual harassment or hostile work environment lawsuit will be better protected than those who didn't.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Truth in Television in the past, but increasingly rare today to the point of being a Dead Horse Trope (See "Omnidisciplinary Lawyer").
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: In Real Life, they do; while their effectiveness is largely tied to budgetary limitations, they do the absolute best that they can. As a result, events that would bring their attention to a child's plight (such as Hilariously Abusive Childhood) but would be shrugged off in fiction will be dealt with.
  • Solomon Divorce: Not totally unusual in Real Life divorces (in the legal terminology, this is usually called a "split parenting situation"), however because it can be a traumatic experience for a child, the total disconnection from the other siblings that is seen in fiction is frowned upon if not forbidden by law (so such thing as visitation times or some psychological counsel are at least suggested).
    • A regular variation on this Trope is that one parent gets the sole legal and physical/residential custody of the childrennote  with no visitation/parenting time for the other spouse. This one is a doozy... note 
  • Spousal Privilege: Fictional uses of this tend to be considerably broader than Real Life laws allow.
  • Stop, or I Will Shoot!: This varies from country to country.
  • There Is No Higher Court: Well, yes, eventually you'll get to the highest court that has jurisdiction to hear the case. Depending on the jurisdiction that could be quite a few steps.
  • We All Live in America: Once again, Real Life law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The United States has created a large amount of "law" shows since the inception of film and television. We seriously recommend that you consult your local laws, otherwise you (and your show) will be mocked for Critical Research Failure at the very least.
  • Wrongful Accusation Insurance: In Real Life, there are three things wrong with this scenario:
    1. If someone has been successfully framed for a serious crime, they most likely aren't free to investigate it. They're in jail.
    2. To the legal system, why you committed a crime is utterly irrelevant. Having a good reason doesn't get you any points unless, say, it gets murder knocked down to involuntary manslaughter.
    3. If you've already been convicted, even later-proven innocence is not a defense. You don't have a right to a pardon, a new trial (unless there was a procedural error) or any reduction of your sentence.note 


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    Films — Live-Action 

  • In Iron Man 2, during the Senate Committee hearing, Senator Stern orders Rhodes to read a single line from his report on the Iron Man armor — clearly out of context — about Iron Man being a potential threat, then cuts him off before he could explain what he meant. Tony had every right to ask Rhodes to finish his statement. Naturally, Rhodey calls him out on this when he makes this demand.
  • In Jem and the Holograms, Jerrica is asked to sign a solo recording contract by music executive Erica Raymond. Nearly everything about the signing scene is wrong:
    • There is no lawyer present for the signing, nor a review of the contract. Jerrica simply takes a cursory look at the contact and signs without reading any of the fine print.
    • Multiple reviews of the film pointed out that there are virtually no major record label contracts that only require you to initial the first page. Nearly every contract signing, regardless of industry, requires that the signer(s) read and initial each page so that they understand what is being said.
    • Jerrica waives away any royalties or income until an unspecified point in time after her tour is completed. No mention is made by her of how she's supposed to support herself, how Erica's offer is better than any other label's or how this is legally sound.
    • Finally, Jerrica signs the document as "Jem", her stage alias. Not only is this absurd, but it isn't legally enforceable. If she chose to, Jerrica could break the contract and simply claim that the signature wasn't hers if she was taken to court.
  • The opening of Michael Clayton suggests that the guy who handled your company's latest merger is rarely the guy you want representing you in a hit-and-run.
    • Not true. Clayton was there specifically so that no lawyers would be involved. When he appreciated the situation for what it was, he recommends another firm to handle the case.
  • In I Shot Jesse James, the outlaw Frank James is acquitted of charges in Colorado, and the jail immediately lets him go, even though they acknowledge he's wanted in other states like Kansas and Missouri. In reality, the Colorado authorities would’ve alerted the other states (telegrams were widespread by 1892, so there wouldn’t be a long delay) and kept Frank locked up until one of the states contacted them about extradition via the U.S. Marshals.

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Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence Law, You Fail Law Forever

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtisticLicenseLaw?from=Main.ArtisticLicenceLaw