It is certainly not unheard of for a book written by a lawyer to make headlines. John Grisham comes to mind and Rumpole of the Bailey gave me many a happy hour as a student. But is a rare thing for a book about the practice of law to rise up to Number 3 in The Times charts – especially one written by an anonymous barrister. Stories of the Law – and How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister has managed to do just that.
For the purpose of this review I will call the author SB whom, I will also assume is a she for no particular reason!
What she has written is a devastating critique of our criminal justice system. It is based on her experience as a working criminal barrister over many years. This is certainly the voice of someone who deserves to be heard. It is also very readable. The book is interesting, funny and terrifying at the same time.
Time and space don’t permit an analysis of every detail. I intend to focus on three key issues that caused me particular alarm as I read it.
The first of these took me back many years to my early days as a young and terrified criminal advocate who was destined to be a civil litigator! This is the wonderful and fascinating world of the Magistrates Court, where the majority of criminal cases start and end. It is clear from SB that little has changed over those years. Bail applications are routinely refused. Defendants are routinely convicted. All of this is done by willing volunteers recruited via a system which ‘prizes whether you ran a tombola over your capacity for legal analysis.’ There are many examples of the eccentricity of the courts including one enthusiastic magistrate criticising cross examining counsel for asking a leading question – which is of course the whole point of cross examination. SB finds no justification for this – ‘sausage factory paradigm of justice’, other than that it is ‘cheap, is the way we’ve always done it and no one who votes knows or cares.’ There are those who support the idea of local lay justices. But no one reading this section of the book can avoid a sense of alarm that the liberty of citizens is left in the hands of these courts. That sense of alarm is unrelenting.
The next issue that shocked me was the appalling treatment of victims. Politicians like to talk about victims of crime. The tabloids love it. There is a Victims’ code, a Victims’ minister, a Victims’ Commissioner, a Victims’ Task Force. But ultimately, no one really gives a shit. They are routinely excluded from the entire process. Cases are listed for floating trials with no hope of actually starting. But the victim is led to believe that this will be their day in court. Many months can go by before a case is relisted. Two thirds of Crown Court Trials do not go ahead. Who knew? The victims certainly didn’t. In one shocking case a victim of serious domestic abuse sees the prosecution of her former partner collapse because a seriously under-resourced CPS failed to get its act together. According to one survey, only 55% of victims would be willing to go through the process again. All of this is done under the tagline – Putting the Victims First.
Thirdly SB explains the iniquitous ‘Innocence Tax’. ‘You can be refused legal aid and forced to pay privately. You can be found not guilty of any criminal offence. And the life savings you have exhausted in the process of defending yourself will not be refunded.’ In what civilised society is this acceptable?
There is far more in the book as she takes us through a nightmarish procession of wrongful convictions, wrongly abandoned prosecutions, disillusioned victims, a desperately underfunded CPS and woefully underpaid legal aid lawyers.
I would encourage all lawyers to read the book. Unless you are doing this work day in day out you do not really have any idea. I knew there was a big problem but did not fully appreciate just how bad it was. All MPs have been sent a copy. They should read it. They will not be the same again if they do. Anyone with a concern about how our country treats those accused of and the victims of crime (in other words all of us!) should read this book now! Not everyone will agree with it all. But no one can disagree that the law is broken and urgent action is needed.