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'In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law': An Interview with Sarah Langford

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About The Author

Malvika Jaganmohan (Regular Writer)

Malvika is a pupil at Coram Chambers with a particular interest in family law and access to justice. Outside the law, Malvika can usually be found with her nose in a book (with a soft spot for romantic novels and detective fiction) or trying her hand at various creative hobbies with little success. 

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The law. A great and ancient institution filled with strange words and rituals, impenetrable to those outside it. A place where steel-hearted lawyers in costume dissect people's lives in a quest for truth, with no understanding of, or place in, the modern world.

That's what I thought too.

Sarah Langford

“It’s technical only,” says a harried Sarah Langford over Facetime as I apologise for interrupting her maternity leave to grill her about her book, In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law. She explains that she’s already working on her next book: “my current plan is to put my agent and my clerk in a room together and let them fight it out and see who wins.”

Her next book is likely to be fiction, she tells me. Given the tone of In Your Defence, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Langford spins the stories of eleven individuals, the details drawn from multiple real-life cases, the line between fact and fiction blurred together in a compelling narrative style. She puts herself in the shoes of the semi-fictional clients, describing the precipitating incidents which led to legal proceedings through their eyes.

Langford was determined to bring the clients to life, to give them colour and character so the reader never forgets that these are three-dimensional people, far removed from the labels that are readily placed upon them. “To set most of the chapters right from the beginning inside the mind of the person, I wanted to give the reader an experience where they were following that person and given a much richer and complex view of them”, she says. There’s Maggie, the young mother desperate to parent her baby, one child already removed from her care. Peter, the eighteen-year-old with blonde curls, caught with hundreds of images of child abuse on his computer.  Saba, an excited young bride eager to meet her new husband in England, only for her life to spiral rapidly out of control as he turns out to be a violent abuser.

The book is a new take on the legal memoir. Unlike William Clegg QC’s Under the Wig, a highly readable, entertaining romp through some of the juiciest cases of his life at the Bar, or Helena Kennedy QC’s Eve Was Shamed, a scathing critique of structural discrimination towards women in the criminal justice system, Langford’s work is more personal. It often reads as a diary or a journal, delving into her emotional responses to the cases that have shaped her career.

Langford was approached to write the book when she was six months pregnant. “Part of the motivation was because I was out of it,” she explains. “It was so much easier to reflect on it from outside looking in.” She goes on to tell me, “It was a far easier project to work out why I reacted and why I thought the way I did whilst I wasn’t having to live it. When you’re doing that kind of work you don’t look that much further forward than the next day.”

Many at the Bar can empathise with this sentiment. The harrowing cases that are characteristic of their working lives become run-of-the-mill. There’s no time to dwell on the parent from whom a child was removed that afternoon, or the vulnerable defendant who was granted a harsh sentence for a one-off, terrible mistake. Lawyers become numb to the emotion and the horror; distanced from the people behind the words on a page. In one striking passage of the book, Langford writes:

“I discovered that, although I never forgot the images that the words created in my head, their power lessened. Familiarity brought with it desensitization. Repetition reduced their impact. Torment and suffering were turned into text within a statement as human horror morphed into cold evidence. Rape. Penetration. Fissure. Bruising. Blood. Abuse. Someone else’s hell translated into tomorrow’s job.”

Langford’s musings are timely. Within a context of greater awareness of wellbeing at the Bar, her book is a reminder of why the conversation matters and it highlights the emotional toll suffered by barristers, day after day. Numerous initiatives have cropped up to destigmatise mental health at the Bar, such as the lawyer-led project Claiming Space, aimed at mitigating the impact of stress and vicarious trauma on lawyers.

“Emotional wellbeing at the Bar was not a phrase that you would have heard at all about five years ago,” Langford laughs. “I expect there’s still a large amount of eye-ball rolling in robing rooms all over the place if you say that.” She goes on to add: “allowing yourself to be moved by things – god forbid.”

The book also deals sensitively with the challenges posed to women at the Bar. In Your Defence isn’t intended to be a modern manifesto for women’s rights. What Langford does is more nuanced and more subtle. Her book is littered with passing references to how her experience of the Bar is shaped, inevitably, by her being a woman. She recalls her second interview for pupillage where the other male candidates “sat with legs confidently spread, looking only an inch or two away from middle age despite their youth”. She writes of her discomfort at having to take off her jacket and fix her bib in a sweltering hot courtroom, anxious not to have her male colleagues stare or, even worse, offer to help. She describes her wariness of a client accused of the violent rape of his wife, resisting the urge to place her hand on the curve of her belly, concealing a pregnancy that is yet to reveal itself. She mentions the “politics of pregnancy”: knowing to disguise it for fear of solicitors not instructing her if she can’t see a case through to the end.

In conversation with me, Langford refers to Behind the Gown: an initiative inspired by the #MeToo movement to tackle sexual harassment at the Bar (a 2016 Bar Standards Board report found that two in five respondents reported having suffered harassment). She also comments on the particular pressures upon women in the profession.

“The way we work is so hugely incompatible to family life … If you are a trial lawyer, working with a system that has next to no predictability built into it – chaotic listings and last-minute changes – which is the Criminal Bar, then you will lose the majority of women who are in their thirties or whenever they have children, who don’t have the support network to help you go back to the Bar.”

Another motivation for Langford to write the book was to put a compelling case forward for her profession, which is teetering on the brink of absolute crisis. She observes that “we have this relationship with the law that’s based on a sense of both trust and complacency” and “those who are at the coalface know that the system is hanging on by a thread.”

The legal aid cuts imposed on the profession by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) have had a devastating impact, wreaking havoc on courts across the board. Lawyers have started to enter the public sphere with their vocal criticism, such as The Secret Barrister’s hugely successful Stories of the Law and How Its Broken.

Langford closes her book with a reflection on the importance of the work she does and the system within which she plays a role. It is apt that Langford situates this at the end of the chapter entitled ‘Jude’: the story of a private law dispute between two parents where the father has alienated a child – Jude – from his mother. Despite Jude’s firm protestations, the judge orders a transfer of residence from the father to the mother. Many months later, the judge’s risk pays off, with Jude settled and happy in his mother’s care. At the end of Langford’s position statement: “Jude wants the judge to know that he thinks she made the right decision”.

Reflecting on cases such as this, Langford comments on the fairness and integrity of our justice system, considered to be one of the best in the world. But, she warns, “[w]e’re in danger of taking this for granted. Great damage has already been done. Our legal system is regularly threatened and often wholly unsupported by those whose duty it is to protect it.”

Langford’s warning, alongside those of many of her colleagues, rings particularly true in the weeks following the release of the long-awaited government review into the cuts imposed by LASPO. The review was met with mixed reviews by a profession that is sceptical that any real change will be effected.

If change is not effected, then there are many more Maggies and Peters and Sabas and Judes whose lives will be at the mercy of a justice system that is unable to deliver fair outcomes; a system that will, ultimately, fail them.

Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law is available to purchase in paperback and hardback. She tweets @wigsandwords

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

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