Comparative Analysis of Legal System through Film
There are many factors that affect the shaping of a legal system, not only in the United States but in every country around the world. The Castle, an Australian film that follows the Kerrigan family’s legal fight to keep their home, does a good job of explaining many aspects of the Australian legal system. With the help of this film and the readings from class, I will explain how this particular system works, based on the incentives and motivations of the parties involved and the structure of the court system.
The primary actor in this film is Darrell Kerrigan, a blue collar worker, who after being given a “compulsory acquisition” notice from the government to purchase his land for an airport expansion, takes his claim to court. Kerrigan’s inexperience in the legal system becomes evident when he turns to Dennis Denuto to take up his case, a lawyer who doesn’t even specialize in the type of law at hand. Thus the odds are stacked against Kerrigan, as he is a one-shotter client going against a repeat player, which in this case is the airport company.
As Galanter’s piece in Law and Society states, repeat players have many advantages over one-shotters because they have experience in courts, a wide array of resources, and are prepared for nearly any legal battle they are dragged into. In this particular film, the airport company has a team of highly skilled lawyers to represent them, ones that are clearly well connected with the other actors in the legal system such as judges and court clerks. With Kerrigan being motivated to save his home and the airport representatives being dead set on taking it, it’s up to the judges of the courts to decide which party to side with.
The case begins at an Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a low Australian court that’s similar to a US Claims Court and only involves Kerrigan and his lawyer presenting their argument in front of a single judge. This court is inquisitorial in the sense that a single judge is examining the merits and facts of Kerrigan’s argument. The judge takes a textualist approach in examining the case, looking over the exact words of the Australian Constitution to find any injustice done to Kerrigan and in doing so finds none. While it may seem unjust for a judge to deny an appeal so speedily, lower courts have heavy workloads and thus the judge as an actor has an incentive to deal with cases in a timely fashion.
However, since “litigants have a powerful need to express themselves vocally” during a trial, it is understandable for Kerrigan to be upset with the courts lack sincerity while he explained his situation. Even after Kerrigan was offered an additional sum of money by the airport to settle his case out of court, he continues to fight for his home, which is very representative of Tamara Relis’ argument in the University of Pittsburgh Law Review. In it, she suggests that plaintiffs often aren’t swayed by money in court cases and will continue to fight for what they think is just, even after their lawyer explains the legal “realities” to them. The legal reality that Denuto explains to his client is that he has a very slim chance of winning his case, but despite this, Kerrigan continues on to the next court.
The case is then brought up to a federal appeals court, where both sides argue in front of judge, suggesting that the Australian court system is a mix between inquisitorial and adversarial. As in the lower court, this judge asks the appellate on what precedent he bases his claim off of, showing that the Australian legal system follows a principle of Stare Decisis. As stated in On Law Politics and Judicialization, a system that adopts this value has high levels of redundancy, meaning most cases can be decided by past court decisions. While the appellate tries desperately to references cases that barely relate to the one at hand, the respondents (what we would call defendants in the US) are familiar with the judge and easily dismiss any notion of precedent in favor of the opposition.
After losing his second appeal, Kerrigan is left with only the option of taking his case to the High Court of Australia, a court of last resort. Fortunately for Darrell, Mr. Hamill, an experienced lawyer with a background in constitutional law, decides to work pro bono on the case. The Australian equivalent of the US Supreme Court is made up of three judges, who along with the lawyers of both parties, are donned in robes and headdresses, suggesting uniformity in the law and equality among the two parties. During the oral arguments, Hamill is able to craft an argument by referencing a certain law from the Australian Constitution that has to do with eminent domain. Specifically, he cites that the “unjust” clause of it applies to this particular case and the court ends up ruling in his favor. This moment proves that statues are open to interpretation and that the Australian legal system, like our own, relies on lawyers convincing judges to interpret laws in a way that best helps their own client.
The parties involved in a case, like in any legal system, have motivations that bring them to court and result in legal precedent either being upheld or newly created. The Australian court structure is fairly typical, with lower courts that work in almost autonomous ways and an appeal system that can take an appellate all the way up to a court of last resort if they’re fortunate enough. Regardless of their configuration, legal systems around the world all have one common goal: to interpret the law as best as possible.