The Secret Barrister
Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
This book is nothing if not thoroughly topical. At the time of writing, the failings of the Crown Prosecution Service are making headline news, but such are the transient whims of the media, they may have gone off-radar by the time you read this little over a month later. However, when a judge admits (in the context of the recent Liam Allan case, where a student was accused and convicted of a rape which he had not committed and which would have been disproved had relevant and available evidence been identified at an early stage): ‘Repeated failures by the police and the CPS are symptomatic of a situation that has existed for the last 6-8 years, and is due in large part to governmental cuts,’ public concern inevitably makes itself felt.
This book, by a practising junior barrister (male or possibly female) specialising in criminal law who has chosen to remain anonymous in the interests of candour, does nothing to allay that concern; in fact, it stokes it. After a short survey of crime and punishment through the ages, we are introduced to the workings of what is termed ‘The Wild West of the Magistrate’s Court’: bail, remand, the Crown Prosecution Service, imprisoning the innocent, acquitting the guilty, legal aid, sentencing, appeal , prison – the whole legal apparatus is passed under review in a richly rhetorical and scathing indictment which leaves the reader in little doubt that if even a quarter of the account is true, our far-famed justice system (‘the best in the world’) is so broken that nothing could ever fix it. No injection of funds, no recruitment of committed and intelligent practitioners, no radical reform of principles of law.
The author concludes, in the final chapter titled ‘My Closing Speech’, that his or her ‘naïve, hopeless hope’ is that we might as a society reimagine a functioning, accessible criminal justice system as an item of universal insurance akin to the NHS. Because ‘there is much that is fundamentally good about our justice system.’ The building-blocks are all there. It’s just that it doesn’t work, and often spectacularly miscarries.
There is a vein of mocking, sometimes self-depreciatory humour that runs through the whole book and that may carry the reader with it. The verdict of the profession as a whole could be that it is over-wrought, unfairly selective and in places wildly over-generalised. I can’t say, not being remotely imbued with any kind of legal training apart from a nodding acquaintance with Roman Law. But this book will cause a stir (as have the blogs of the same Secret Barrister over the past couple of years). I carry away one unshakeable conviction (no pun intended): whatever happens, don’t get accused of a crime you haven’t committed. You will almost certainly lose your reputation, your friends, family solidarity, job associates, livelihood, a great deal of money and your peace of mind. You may even lose your liberty for a shorter or longer period. But, like the roadside notice ‘Beware Low-Flying Aircraft’, the question arises: what on earth can we do about it?
(Macmillan 2018), 375 pp.
Reviewed in a proof copy pre-publication by Mark Greenstock.
Published on 22 March 2018.