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Book Review: 'Stories of the Law and How It's Broken' by the Secret Barrister

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About The Author

Connor Griffith (Joint Editor-in-Chief)

Connor is a law graduate from the University of Nottingham with a particular interest in commercial law. He recently completed the combined LLM LPC at Nottingham Law School and is waiting to begin his training contract with a large national firm. Outside the law, he enjoys stand-up comedy and horror books.

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All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In the world of legal commentary, certain texts have emerged as more significant than their competitors. Notable examples include Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyersdiscussed in more detail by Chris Bridges for Keep Calm Talk Law – or the late Lord Bingham’s The Rule of Law. More recently, another entry has joined this upper echelon of legal texts.

Published on 22 March 2018, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – written by the ‘Secret Barrister’, an anonymous junior barrister that runs an award-winning blog – has proven to be phenomenally successful both within and outside the legal profession, reaching the Sunday Times top five in its first week. After purchasing two copies of the book – like a modern Athena, goddess of wisdom, I granted the gift of knowledge to the public by accidentally leaving my first copy on a train – it has become clear that the endless five-star reviews received by the Secret Barrister’s (SB) book are entirely deserved.

The best books are those that make the reader feel something upon completion. Despite being an avid reader, never have I had my ignorant sunny disposition smashed so ruthlessly by stone-cold truth imbedded in text. Never have I mouthed the words ‘Oh my God’ or ‘You can’t be serious’ more at a book.

Indeed, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken leaves the reader feeling shocked that the English and Welsh criminal system – widely regarded as the foundation upon which many modern legal systems are based –  has become the hollow shell that it now is. Put simply, to call this book a ‘must-read’ is, if possible, a grave understatement.

The Secret Barrister’s Mission

The book takes the reader down the path of a criminal case: it begins with the initial hearing at the magistrates court, and then works its way through conditions for bail, applications for legal aid, a trial at the Crown Court for more serious offences, sentencing for those found guilty and the possibility of appeal where there has been a miscarriage of justice.

SB provides an in-depth explanation of the history behind each of the stages in order to justify their existence, and then crushes these justifications with harrowing real-life tales of their inadequacy, to strike the reader with the hard-hitting realities of the modern criminal bar.

An example can be seen in chapter two, which discusses the magistrates court. Though SB is careful to note that there are some magistrates that are able to appropriately sympathise with the hard daily reality of the defendants in front of them, such magistrates ‘remain a minority’. On the whole, SB writes that the ‘entire case in favour of magistrates’ courts, as we currently run them, is a sham’, with there being ‘little sustainable rationale for their existence in principle, and no justification whatsoever for the way in which these courts operate in practice.’

Indeed, one of the main arguments for having magistrates try defendants is that they, like jurors, represent judgment by the defendant’s peers in that magistrates are not legally trained. However, SB argues that this point is a complete fallacy in that magistrates are typically ‘white, middle aged and middle class, with a traditionally conservative leaning’ and so in no way represent the average defendant. This ‘socially, culturally and ethically homogeneous lay judiciary’ inevitably leads to a ‘narrower and more entrenched set of beliefs and presumptions’, resulting in most magistrates having distinctive ‘pro-prosecution attitudes’. Combined with the fact that magistrates are completely untrained in the law, this tendency for conviction has time and time again resulted in errors of judgment and inappropriate sentences. Put simply:

In what other area of public life do we allow amateurs to carry out the functions of qualified and regulated professionals? … But when it comes to criminal justice, we are happy to subcontract laypeople to perform a strictly legal function.

The purpose of the book – as set out in the  ‘Opening Speech’ – is to ‘sound an alarm’ in an attempt to raise awareness of ‘why criminal justice matters’ and to demonstrate how SB thinks ‘we are getting it so wrong’. Specifically, SB is concerned that the ‘public’s lack of insight into our secretive, opaque system is allowing the consecration of a way of dealing with crime that bears little resemblance to what we understand by criminal justice’. The result is shocking:

[D]efendants, victims and, ultimately, society, are being failed daily by an entrenched disregard for fundamental principles of fairness.

The substantial failures of the criminal justice system, expressed with meticulous care in the book, are only exacerbated by the fact that most people seem apathetic about what is happening in our society. SB notes how, on the day after ‘a parliamentary report published in May 2016 began with those nine damning words – the criminal justice system is close to breaking point – not one single newspaper thought it was more newsworthy than repetitive scare stories about migration or, in one case, a confected “scandal” over Britain’s Got Talent.’

Indeed, in the ‘Closing Speech’ at the book’s end, SB concludes that there are multiple reasons for this frustrating indifference exhibited by the public towards the criminal justice system:

  • A failure to provide legal education to the public, despite it being a ‘fundamental requisite of the rule of law that a citizen be able to know their legal rights and obligations’;
  • Politicians choosing to express views ‘tailored to tickling party political G-spots’ – a beautiful phrase – and misleading the public in order to satisfy their personal objectives instead of actually performing their roles and acting in the best interests of their constituents;
  • The media excluding vital facts from their reports in order to extract as much emotion from their misinformed readers as possible, resulting in distorted stories that damage the public perception of the legal industry as a whole;
  • The undeniable but ultimately wrongly-placed attitude by the majority of the law-abiding public that it will ‘never be me’ that will suffer from the failures of the law.

As a result, SB wrote Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken to ‘shine a light on what really goes on’ and to ‘explore why we should care, and to illustrate what happens when we don’t.’

Hope For The Future

What is most notable, however, is the sense of pure disappointment that goes into every page. Disappointment at the incessant pursuit of conviction statistics by the Crown Prosecution Service, which sees far more emphasis placed on the number of convictions achieved than the quality of justice delivered in the courts.

Disappointment that the Ministry of Justice’s manipulative lie that the English and Welsh legal aid system is the ‘most expensive legal aid system in the world’ has influenced public opinion to the point that cuts to legal aid are celebrated as sticking it to the ‘fat cat’ criminal lawyers who, in reality, earn a median net salary of just £27,000 a year.

Disappointment that politicians, in clawing attempts to appease their press overlords, are willing to turn their backs on ample evidence of the benefits of rehabilitation, and instead time and time again promote mandatory prison sentences that encourage a cycle of crime and punishment from which many young offenders will never be given the chance to escape.

This justifiable frustration is transferred to the reader, but I am – and, I am sure, most readers will share this sentiment – immensely grateful for it as it has shown just how wilfully ignorant I have been of the problems faced by our criminal justice system. For those outside the law it can be difficult to know the intricacies of its struggling corpse. Of course, the words ‘legal aid’ are shouted at us from all sides of the political spectrum a hundred times a year, but it is rare to have a text provide so much detail in such an accessible way. 

It is for this reason that the book is so fascinating: it is remarkably approachable. SB’s objective is to bring awareness of the necessity for understanding and interest to all, and does so by making no assumptions about the level of knowledge the reader previously held. Certainly, the book’s success at striking a chord with readers at all levels has swiftly become clear: for example, a crowdfunding campaign orchestrated by the Criminal Bar Association and Young Legal Aid Lawyers has been successful in raising enough money to send a copy of the book to every MP. SB’s book seems on track to achieve (and go beyond) the goal once said by the famous American novelist Russell Banks:

Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.

It is common practice for book reviews to end with long-winded eloquent sentences made up of unnecessarily elaborate words in a desperate attempt to prove to the reader that the reviewer is a smart person and that their opinion is therefore worth listening to. That is not necessary here. Regardless of whether you have 30 years’ experience in the legal industry, just a mild interest in keeping up to date with politics or this article is the first law-related piece of writing you have ever stumbled upon, my advice remains the same: buy this book. Read it from cover to cover and then encourage your family, friends, children and pets to read it too. It is genuinely fantastic.

The Secret Barrister's new book 'Stories of the Law and How It's Broken' is available from 22 March 2018.

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Tagged: Courts, Criminal Law, Justice, Legal Aid, Prisons, Review, Rule of Law

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