The portrayal of legal matters on television – a duty of care?

Millions of people watch soaps and other fictional dramas on television, but what duties do the people making these programmes have to make sure that the information they are including is correct? Everybody knows that soap operas are fictional, with fictional storylines and fictional characters. In fact, many people watch these programmes to escape from their everyday lives. But what happens when legal concepts and principles are discussed as part of a storyline? Should there be an obligation to make sure that the content being broadcast is factually correct and not misleading?

There was a scene in a recent episode of EastEnders, where the characters were discussing ‘powers of attorney’. The dialogue went something like this:

‘Your Grandma has just given me power of attorney so I’m now in control of her property and bank accounts. I was going to give you some early inheritance, but I’ve just changed my mind.’

From a legal perspective, there are several things wrong with this, and people with existing knowledge of lasting powers of attorney (LPA’s) would be able to spot these. However, for someone not familiar with the rules and processes, this could discourage them from making LPA’s, or it could give attorneys the wrong impression about what they can do, both of which have potentially damaging consequences.

The scene suggested that once an attorney is appointed, they take control of the donor’s affairs immediately. This is not the case, as whilst the donor has mental capacity, the most an attorney can do is act on the donor’s behalf, with their consent. This is a big worry for people when discussing LPA’s, as they do not want to give up control of their own affairs. If people viewing this scene are led to believe that their attorney will immediately take control of their affairs, they are not going to want to make an LPA. This could cause lots of problems if they then lose mental capacity without having an LPA in place and require an application to be made for a deputyship order.

The scene also suggested that an attorney can make large gifts on behalf of the donor. Again, this is not necessarily the case, and any proposed gifts like this should be authorised by the Court of Protection. Attorneys have a duty to act in the best interests of the donor, and so the question must be addressed – how is giving away someone’s money in their best interests? If someone appointed as an attorney is viewing this scene, they may be led to believe that they can go ahead and make such gifts, which could leave them in a lot of trouble.

It is accepted that these television programmes must be dramatic and entertaining, but at what cost? As a result of a scene lasting around 30 seconds, so many people will now have the wrong information about LPA’s. It is accepted that people should not take legal advice from television programmes, but many will not think to check the information for themselves. Would the episode have been any less entertaining because this scene was removed or was factually correct? Probably not. Would it have been a major, time consuming job for the writers/researchers to check the facts before adding this scene to the script? Probably not. And yet because of these 30 seconds, so many people will now be worried about making LPA’s, with the fear that they must immediately give up control of their own affairs. More needs to be done by the writers and producers of television programmes to address these issues and to stop portraying such damaging misinformation about important legal matters.

And all of the above is without even mentioning the choice of attorney in the EastEnders scene – someone who had stolen from the donor in the past would probably not be the best choice…

Emma Adkins
Consultant Solicitor

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