‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ says Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, Part II. Mostly, this has been written off by literature undergraduates and fridge magnet makers as a joke at the expense of one of the oldest professions; but there’s another interpretation. Dick, although a comic character, was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who believed that by disrupting law and order he could overthrow the king and stand in his place. What this line actually means is that lawyers independent of the state are the final bastion of civilised society. Without lawyers, society falls apart.
This premise is examined in two new books, both written by practising barristers: the Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, and In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law, by Sarah Langford.
The Secret Barrister is an anonymous criminal barrister, who has been blogging for several years about the criminal justice system to great acclaim. The plight of the barrister is not, at least superficially, a terribly sympathetic one: fat cats caricatured by the press, living off the proceeds of a generous legal aid system. As the Secret Barrister puts it, ‘for professional advocates, barristers do a strikingly bad job of explaining what we do, or why it matters’. The Secret Barrister takes on this thankless task, following the life of a criminal trial, from charge through to appeal, dispelling myths, righting wrongs and telling anecdotes.
There are, it quickly becomes apparent, a few problems. The Crown Prosecution Service is judged only on how many convictions it secures. Among the decent, hard-working solicitors there exist some less scrupulous, ready to sell clients down the river for a guilty plea and a quick buck. And magistrates — who are barely trained, and overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and elderly — sit in judgment over 90 per cent of cases.
The narrative problem here is that many of these inadequacies have the same cause: a lack of government funding. That the author manages not to make this same conclusion feel repetitive is remarkable. The book is impeccably researched, and the arguments are backed to the nines with statistics and worked examples. Laid out calmly, the facts do what facts should do, but often don’t: they clarify and convince.
The Secret Barrister’s book is a call to arms: a desperate, last-ditch attempt to open the eyes of those outside the profession to the injustices which exist within our justice system. Yet it remains an optimistic book, offering answers and solutions. Occasionally, chunks of prose do feel as though they’d begun life as discrete blog posts, but this immensely impressive volume manages to make a subject that is bleak and dry utterly compelling.
Sarah Langford’s book is less manifesto and more memoir. Luckily for the memoirist, the less glamorous parts of the barrister’s job, behind the wigs and gowns and oak-clad courtrooms, are often the most interesting. In Your Defence follows Langford’s practice, with each chapter focusing on a different client, taken from a different case. Unlike the Secret Barrister, Langford has a mixed practice, representing individuals in both the criminal and family courts. She prosecutes and defends, and acts on behalf of both parents and children who are the subject of custody proceedings. The book is by turns heartbreaking and hopeful, and succeeds in giving an articulate, compassionate voice to those who would otherwise struggle to be heard.
The prose is engrossing, and the book is only too easy to devour in great gulps. Langford doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects; the chapter focusing on her defence of an allegedly paedophilic father is chilling, while her ambivalence at representing a young man accused of possessing indecent images is frank and unresolved. ‘How can you defend someone who’s guilty?’ is the question barristers always face — but holding someone’s fate in your hands is usually more complex than that. Langford tackles the frustration and fears of the profession with honesty and energy.
To anyone familiar with the criminal courts, it’s not surprising that these books have appeared at the same time. Cuts to legal aid have forced many barristers (including myself) to leave the profession, and the court system is at breaking point. The Secret Barrister describes this system as a ‘sausage factory’ of justice. No one wants to see how the sausage gets made — but we all should.