by Finchley Atticus
…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1979. 119 MINUTES)
FINCHLEY’S RATING: 4/5
DIRECTOR: NORMAN JEWISON
LEAD ACTORS: AL PACINO, JACK WARDEN, JOHN FORSYTHE
If you can imagine Atticus Finch pumped up on Red Bull, you get Al Pacino as the memorable Arthur Kirkland in the courtroom drama …And Justice for All. Kirkland, an idealistic lawyer of 12 years whose divorced wife has custody of their children, displays a weary compassion for helpless clients in his bustling Baltimore practice, yet doesn’t hesitate to see through his client’s lies, “Don’t lie to me!”. Kirkland reminds us of the frailties faced by players in the justice system.
We witness a defence lawyer’s nervous breakdown after getting a murder acquitted on a technicality, and then finding he subsequently murdered two children. We witness clients who are stuck in prison when they shouldn’t have been there. We witness another lawyer who represents well-healed commercial clients disparagingly refer to poor and marginalised clients as the “nickel and dime”.
Nickels and dimes. If I remade …And Justice for All, I would have said that a client’s money (or lack thereof) plays a significant role in determining the winner. That’s not to say this is right, but I’m sure even a lawyer with the idealism of Kirkland recognises this especially as the judge accused of rape (played chillingly by John Forsythe, for whom members of a certain generation will always remember as the conniving yet charming Blake Carrington in Dynasty) is one who with his privileged position has significant funds to spare in his defence, even if he virtually admits his guilt to a disgusted Kirkland.
Throw in race and you are also certain of knowing who the winner (or sadly) who the loser is. Van Badham, writing in The Guardian on 26 July 2013 drew a tale of two defendants both aged 27, one a law student, Liam Danial Sweeney (and son of a barrister may I add), convicted of glassing and bashing a man in an “unprovoked and gratuitous” assault at a birthday party at Melbourne Crown Casino. The other defendant, Kwementyaye Briscoe of Alice Springs, had committed no crime when the police in their wisdom decided to chase him, wrestle him to the ground and place him in “protective custody”. It’s not every day that a defendant in the Magistrate’s Court has a QC, but it just happens Sweeney did, and Ian Hill QC certainly earned his pay, with Magistrate Jack Vandersteen being moved to say, of a possible jail sentence, that he thought Sweeney would not last very long, “Not many people are in jail who went to Haileybury or who had your client’s privileged background”, with Hill helpfully adding “Or who look like him”. I can imagine high fives went around in Sweeney’s family when the Magistrate imposed an 18 month suspended sentence and a $5,000 fine. I can’t wait to see how Sweeney explains his conviction for assault to the Admissions Board if he ever wants to practise as a lawyer. Tragically Briscoe, an Aborigine, didn’t even have the opportunity to defend himself in a court (not that he needed to anyway, as he wasn’t charged with anything), as he died in police custody. Sadly again, no police officers were charged although I’m sure they managed to get over being “formally disciplined”. Nickels and dimes indeed.
…And Justice for All reminds me of the helplessness of clients facing government bureaucracies, who can wield power causing unjust situations that can, unless the client has a resolute lawyer not desperate for huge dollars, result in tragic consequences. Like my former client, faced with escalating penalty notices from the Victorian RTA for unpaid speeding fines, due to bureaucratic bungling in failing to record my client’s new postal address. I’m thankful that my law firm colleagues and I, after much investigation, persistence, stubbornness, were able to use the justice system (the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court thank you) to not only overturn the unpaid penalty notices, but also the original speeding fines. Strike that as a win for a client against the State.
I wish I could claim the same for Nathan Gordon, a victim of NSW RTA’s bureaucratic indifference and insensitivity in failing to recognise he could not be responsible for $10,000 worth of speeding fines, resulting in him incurring $20,000 to travel to courts around NSW to defend his case. Tragically, Gordon died as a result of serious head injuries, lying beside his pushbike which he was forced to ride because his licence was suspended for failure to pay speeding fines he wasn’t responsible for. Cold comfort that the RTA sympathised with the family for their loss, and no doubt this statement was carefully vetted by their lawyers. Hardly a just outcome.
…And Justice for All will stir you, move you and even reflect upon the marginalised clients who look to lawyers, who are just human after all, to get them out of their legal hole, yet just lack the much needed funds to achieve justice. You really learn that the movie’s title is sadly and tragically ironic.