Today, we are in something of a golden era in terms of the accessibility and intelligibility of the law and the courtroom to the ordinary citizen.
With the live tweeting of cases of significance, the slow but sure professionalising of legal journalism, and lately, the salutary efforts of judges to throw (virtual) courtrooms open during the pandemic, an entire generation of Indians – lawyers and lay people alike – are coming of age at a time when the law and the courts have begun to feel as if they are the province of all thinking citizens.
If these developments allow the thinking citizen to follow the goings-on in the courts and so feel a more immediate stake in their success than ever before, then Guilty Minds (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, over 10 episodes of about 50 mins each) does so as well by making a real and valuable effort to invite the thinking citizen to inhabit the courtroom and to partake in the process and rewards of thinking like a lawyer.
Representations of the law, of the courts and of lawyers and judges in popular culture are useful barometers for how the people see our profession. So, we can all take heart at and celebrate the progress that Guilty Minds signals:
First, we have a group of storytellers (evenly split between men and women, and legal and lay minds) who begin at the uncommon and flattering premise that telling stories set in the courtroom and about the litigators who inhabit them is valuable in its own right, and, equally, that these stories deserve to be told with the effort and attention needed to deliver a measure of realism.
Second, we have producers who validate this storytelling impulse by making the significant investments necessary in bringing these stories to the screen over the length of a full series.
Third, we have evidence in the form of the show’s reception in the popular press that these efforts and risks have been vindicated in the eyes of the viewing public. (See indicatively here, here, and here).
Much of the praise that Guilty Minds has received in the popular press relates to its impulse and to its success in telling realistic stories about the law and the institutions and persons who are its flesh and blood. This praise rings true in two respects:
The visual world of the law in Guilty Minds is a delight. Courtrooms are largely (though not exactly) true to life, as is the costume. Along with sharpening their visualisations of the courtroom (no red carpeting in courtrooms in the Supreme Court, please!), it would be a treat to watch how Guilty Minds would realise more of the typical sights of our courts in future work. In these attentive hands, perhaps the viewing public could see the crush and collegiality of the typical lawyers’ canteen, or live the energy of Supreme Court corridors packed to the gills on a miscellaneous day.
The show also effectively delivers some of the more sobering truths about the realities of law practice today with the same matter-of-factness with which they are unfortunately treated in real life. It is difficult to miss the completely unquestioned way in which the show’s female protagonist and others wear their generational and familial privilege in their law practices. Also relatable is the anguish with which so many idealist, young litigators are confronted when we inevitably discover – as the protagonist does of her father and family – that some of our role models have feet of clay.
There are essentially two planks on which the stories in Guilty Minds unfold:
The first of these planks wades into the lives that litigators lead outside the courtroom and into the emotional and personal worlds they each inhabit. All of us in everyday law practice will sigh wistfully at the amount and frequency of time off the protagonists are able to afford, if the pub scenes are any indication. And the show seems sadly to have missed that compelling and emotionally rich moments abound in working the law and in living with it, from the highs of wresting a difficult case from the jaws of dismissal to the certain compassion fatigue that committed rights litigators must feel.
The second plank relates to the stories told and tested in the courtroom. Here, episodes alternately treat issues that are perennially in the courts (like litigating rape in superior-subordinate relationships in the workplace, seeking justice for encounter killings in disturbed regions, or finding the right balance between economic growth and the attendant environmental impacts) and cases that are on the horizon with the rise and rise of digital and networked technologies (like copyright as it bears on an algorithm that samples existing songs to make new ones, the attribution of liabilities in accidents involving self-driving cars and the uneasiness in affixing criminal liability for the very real consequences of virtual reality gaming).
Of the latter category of cases, it can safely be said that the writing succeeds in its substance. So much of the policy and academic writing about issues concerning emerging technologies begins at and limits itself to a recitation of the developments in other jurisdictions. How refreshing, then, to find – within the confines of a fictional work intended for a lay audience – the spirit to do more! In Guilty Minds, there is a willingness to do the work to reason about these cases within the bounds of the Indian laws as we have them (the music algorithm episode), to attend to the facts, both to explain them (the dating site chatbot episode) and to apply them (the driverless cars episode), and to show how that staple of thinking about legal problems – reasoning by analogy – is called upon in our work (the virtual reality gaming episode).
Overall, Guilty Minds is easy weekend viewing, and it is more. It is a heartfelt attempt to bring some of the cadences of courtroom argument home to the Indian people. That attempt, I think, is one all of us in the law should welcome warmly.
Ujwala Uppaluri is an advocate based out of Delhi.