Street Legal was an Auckland-based legal series centred round a lawyer, David Silesi, and his many trials (literally and metaphorically) and tribulations.
Based, as Gary Gotlieb told me in his April 2019 LawPoints profile on his own career, it ran over four seasons and racked up a remarkable 52 episodes, as well as the pilot. The word ‘loosely’ can likely be added before ‘based’ as Street Legal is as gaudy and fast-paced as the American law shows it seems to take its cue from.
Its formula, however, seemed to be a winning one. Street Legal was popular with viewers during its long run between 2000 and 2005, and scooped the 2003 New Zealand TV Award for best drama series.
While Gotlieb may have been the inspiration, a Samoan lawyer was chosen to exploit the show’s inner-city Ponsonby setting. Other key characters included Silesi’s ex-girlfriend Joni, who is also a lawyer at the firm, and her new partner Detective Senior Sergeant Kees van Dam (no relation to Jean-Claude, Silesi notes), who would provide an able foil for the lawyer throughout the series.
In true trash TV style, David Silesi and his colleagues use unorthodox methods to determine the truth, which, naturally, always works out the right way. And it’s not all legal beagle court stuff as there’s plenty of focus on the characters' personal lives, which turn out to be messy and tumultuous.
So at least New Zealand lawyers can relate to the latter, and you would hope less of the former.
In the first series we learn that the firm, Wyeth & Associates, is in trouble, with the repossession agent making unwelcome visits. Loans are taken out to keep the firm afloat and cashflow issues are exacerbated by Silesi’s tendency to spend time on non-paying cases.
The lawyers are therefore under pressure to accept all paying work – few questions asked. In one episode this leads them into representing serious criminals in a massive drug operation.
Ex-junkie and an angry judge
In the opening episode, Ellis’s Restaurant, David Silesi is called upon to defend an ex-drug addict who, despite claiming he has been clean for five years and is now a fundamentalist Christian with a Groundskeeper Willie-style Caledonian accent, is up on a drug possession charge. There’s no witnesses to his alleged innocence, so the lawyer isn’t convinced he can clear Lachie. Asked if he believes his client is innocent he replies “I don’t believe he is guilty”.
A plan to force the arresting detective – van Dam – to bring up his client’s previous drug history in court backfires, leading to a dressing down by the judge, who barks at the lawyer: “My chambers. Now”.
A sub-plot develops around Silesi’s ute, which is stolen outside the court. Silesi and his brother Samson break into a supplier’s yard where they discover the ute in pieces.
In court, a dodgy witness claims Lachie confessed the crime to him. So Silesi uses a bluff which forces the admission and Lachie is cleared. The dodgy character, Deed, is then exposed as the man who planted the drugs and coerced the witness to lie. Without enough evidence to nail him, however, Silesi resorts to a method that isn’t taught at law school, ensuring Deed comes to the attention of the police.
In a later episode in the first series, Dangerous Waters, Joni and the irritatingly ever-smiling rookie lawyer Tim O’Connor (who looks about 15) are caught up in a property rights case. Barry Bond, a wealthy boatyard owner, is in a coma after a yachting accident, and his fiancee Lily is battling his chief employee, Muzz, for control of the company.
Meanwhile, David Silesi has to face a formal complaint to the Law Society relating to a court incident two episodes earlier. After his client confesses on the stand to murder, the barrister argues that the client, Dean, is suffering from a stress disorder and is unaware of what he is saying. He gets Dean to raise his hands, showing his bandages, seeping blood, around his wrists. The court is in uproar over this ploy, but the jury is moved and returns a finding of manslaughter rather than murder.
Ray Woolf the strangler
Other episodes were entitled Good Cop/Bad Cop, Heroin Chic, Ladykiller, and Who Lives By The Sword, which give an indication of where the series was going. By the fourth series, the episodes took on running themes, hence Blast From the Past Pts 1-3, Juice Pts 1-3 and Officer Down which also stretched over three episodes.
By the third series the firm’s director/senior partner (no one bothers to say exactly which it is) Peter Wyeth has died, and David and Joni step up to try to save the firm.
There’s lots of chasing, running, and tough talking in the interview room, all of which is reflected in the opening credits, which are more akin to a 1970s cop show. Financial matters are a mere detail. Ray Woolf (yes, that Ray Woolf) even appears in one show as a misogynist strangler.
It’s true low-brow TV with a ludicrous ménage-a-trois storyline, that becomes tedious as the series goes on. And you can imagine what the court scenes are like with ‘objection’ shouted by the opposing learned friend at every available opportunity.
But, with its Kiwi slant, it’s far more bearable than what viewers have to endure from other countries. And the music is by Don McGlashan.
Street Legal isn’t available on DVD, but, while it sometimes gets shown in South Sudan (seriously) the first episode and the pilot are available to watch via the search function at nzonscreen.com