“The system is f***ed and nobody gives a s***” might be the tweet that sums up the Secret Barrister’s (SB) 343-page indictment on the damage wrought to the criminal justice system by successive penny-pinching governments.
The anonymous barrister, who since 2015 has in equal measure informed and entertained its almost 88,000 followers, has taken things a stage further, penning the much anticipated Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, which hit all good book stores this week.
With clarity and eloquence the 12 angry, passionate, frustrated chapters shout their unanimous and damning verdict on a system “close to breaking point”.
The author lays bare the result of the wrong-headed, short-sighted, politically expedient and dishonest drive to prosecute and defend on the cheap, warning that “we are moving from a criminal justice system to simply a criminal system”.
The book recounts everyday tales of injustice and a “culture of error” arising from avoidable failings by the underfunded and understaffed police and prosecution services, allowing “provably guilty people” to walk free.
The “current state of our criminal justice system should terrify us” the author writes, whose raging against the machine is equalled only by astonishment at the “wall of silence” and “collective indifference” of the public to the parlous state of affairs.
“What astounds me most is that people don’t seem to care. Or even know… If the criminal justice system were the NHS, it would never be off the front page.”
A working criminal justice system is “essential to the peaceable democratic society”, serving to “protect the innocent, protect the public and protect the integrity, decency and humanity of our society”, the author writes. “This should be a societal baseline. Not a luxury.”
SB laments that the public do not feel invested in the system because they believe it does not directly affect them, luxuriating in the misplaced confidence that they will never be wrongly accused of a crime.
To reinforce the contention that anyone, even the author’s readers, could find themselves arrested, charged, wrongly convicted and imprisoned, with the consequent losses of job, relationships, reputation and freedom, the writer invents an injustice that befalls a fictional doctor. This seemed unnecessary and risks undermining the book’s central thesis if a real life example could not have been extracted from the barrister’s decade in practice.
For the public’s complacency, SB partly blames the criminal Bar itself, accepting that “for professional advocates, we do a strikingly bad job of explaining what we do or why it matters”.
Through a mixture of history, practice and anecdote, SB provides a whistle-stop guide to why the system is how is, including a comparison with the inquisitorial alternative to our adversarial system – concluding that the latter trumps the former because the state alone is not always competent or honest and cannot be trusted to find the truth.
But some of the most damning and deliciously scathing prose is reserved for the chapter comparing jury trials with the cheaper “pantomime” justice dispensed to 94 per cent of defendants by the “socially, culturally and ethnically homogenous” and “pro-prosecution” magistracy.
The inexcusable “bargain basement retail model of justice” is condemned as “roulette framed as justice” where decisions are “inconsistent, irrational and, at times, plainly unlawful”.
We are reminded that the still mainly white, middle-aged and middle class body was dominated by freemasons until the 1990s, and the “jolly, willing amateurs” of today are compared to the “admissions board of a 1980s country club” who are “lording it over” young, working class and ethnic minority defendants.
The “sinister pincer” of legal aid cuts, forcing many quality barristers and solicitors to quit and making room for shonky practitioners who care nothing for their clients or justice, is condemned as unnecessary. While the oft-peddled myth used by governments to justify the slashing, that “we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world”, is well and truly busted.
SB shines a light on the unfairness of what it terms the “innocence tax” — under which acquitted defendants, forced through their ineligibility for legal aid, to instruct lawyers privately are permitted only to reclaim their expenses from the state at the much lower legal aid rates.
In contrast, the writer highlights the “final desultory boot in the genitals of justice” (my favourite phrase in the book) – which permits those who have put others to the expense of defending failed private prosecutions to reclaim the cost of doing so at virtually whatever amount.
There is high praise for those committed and hard-pressed criminal solicitors, whose dedicated work keeps “the prosecution honest” and decreases the chances of the innocent being convicted. But with that comes the warning that their job “is increasingly under peril”.
At risk of advancing what the writer accepts “may look like the most unattractive special pleading in pinstripes”, the trials and tribulations of the criminal barrister — long hours, pay sometimes below the minimum wage, lugging bags across the country and a diary subject to change at a judge’s command — are set out.
The identity of the Secret Barrister remains, well … a secret. We are told it is because writing anonymously “brings the freedom to be candid”. Given the stinging content of some of the chapters, it seems likely that the fear of losing instructions from the Crown Prosecution Service or exposing clients to wrathful magistrates are also strong incentives.
We do learn that SB is, by the author’s own admission, a modest, “not particularly special,” jobbing barrister, prone to “imposter syndrome”, who was called about ten years ago.
Despite what is “in many ways an intolerable existence” SB loves the “irresistibly special” job that provides “reward for the soul if not the purse”, and amid the “counsel of despair” clings to the “naïve, hopeless hope” that things might get better.
Nothing in the book will come as news to anyone who has had even remote contact with the broken criminal justice system.
SB’s challenge is to spread the word beyond the echo chamber of the adoring legal twitterati — the book certainly deserves a wider audience. But as the author might readily acknowledge, public indifference means it is unlikely to get what it deserves.
* A shorter version of this review was first published by The Brief from The Times law. For more legal news and comment sign up here.