by Afua Hirsch
A war crimes trial is stopped because the government has privatised the supply of interpreters, and the company selected cannot present any who are qualified. Two women, in all likelihood repeatedly raped by their father as children, are humiliated, dehumanised and ultimately disbelieved in proceedings in which they did not stand a chance. Thousands of people every year are convicted of crimes by magistrates whose qualification for dispensing justice is filling out a form, passing an interview, doing some charity work and being willing to sit for 13 days a year, with 18 hours’ worth of training. A man whose innocence should have been easily established in court is convicted of sexual assault because relevant evidence was not disclosed by the police. And meanwhile hundreds of hardworking, dedicated professionals are toiling in near impossible conditions.
This is a portrait of the criminal justice system in England and Wales today, as seen by the Secret Barrister, a criminal advocate who keeps his identity a closely guarded secret so that, he argues, he can be unrestrained in his critique. And unrestrained it is. The book is in part a guide to the system – a reminder of how few of us understand it – and in part a first-hand account of the personal dilemmas facing someone whose professional life is spent in and out of crown courts, police cells and prisons. It is above all a plea to rescue a justice system that has become utterly broken.
“Hell” is the word used by one supreme court judge. “Despair” is the experience of another in the court of appeal. Over the last near decade of austerity, justice has endured the deepest cuts of any departmental spending in the UK. Whole areas of law, including family, housing, immigration, debt and employment, have been taken outside the realm of publicly funded legal representation, leaving some of the most vulnerable people at the mercy of a system that is designed to be incomprehensible to even the most highly educated lay person.
Since 2010, 258 courts have shut across England and Wales. Rape trials have collapsed because police and prosecutors – all victims of the same, sabotaging cuts – have failed to disclose key evidence on which a fair and robust defence depended.
Some of this will come as no surprise. As a former criminal barrister myself, I expected this book to communicate how little we value the people and institutions so vital to our liberty. But what’s so powerful about The Secret Barrister is its ability to connect the dots – from changes to something as seemingly mundane as criminal procedure rules, to the state of prisons – revealing a picture that is more a commentary on society as a whole than it is on robing rooms full of horsehair wigs. In one of its most effective passages, the author points to platitudes about putting victims first, now such a staple of government rhetoric, contrasting them with the actual preference of political leaders, which is to offer taxpayers one penny off the price of beer rather than invest the equivalent amount into a system without which rights can never be properly upheld.
How did we let this happen? The author argues that the lack of legal education in the UK has led a distressing number of people to believe that the work of a barrister involves “strutting around a courtroom barking ‘Objection’ while spinning deliberate lies to a jury as a judge in a full-bottomed wig twirls his gavel”. (None of these things happen in the courts of England and Wales.)
But political bad faith is also part of the answer. For instance, the claim in 2010 of justice minister Jonathan Djanogly that our legal aid system is “the most generous in the world” – I remember his words well, as I was the Guardian legal affairs correspondent at the time. It sounded wrong to me then, but is now, as this book makes clear, “demonstrably, palpably false”.
The Secret Barrister writes compellingly about issues as varied as the treatment of vulnerable victims in rape trials and the state of sentencing law – no mean feat. His style is a blend of pomposity and self-deprecation that is remarkably evocative of many characters at the bar. In seeking new allies, he tends unashamedly to appeal to the middle-class, school run mother or the junior doctor – the subtext being “it’s not only those poor black people who can get caught up in this stuff”. On the question of ethnicity – the hugely disproportionate appearance made by people of colour in the system, and the historical failure of the bar itself to recruit and nurture ethnic minority talent – the book is largely silent.
But at its deepest level, it is not about the criminal justice system at all. The Secret Barrister writes about our idea of ourselves as a nation, an England still so confident in its principles and workings of democracy and justice. When in practice it is now less of a model for others to aspire to than a dire warning as to what can go wrong.
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