‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ says Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, Part II. Mostly, this has been written off by literature undergraduates and fridge magnet makers as a joke at the expense of one of the oldest professions; but there’s another interpretation. Dick, although a comic character, was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who believed that by disrupting law and order he could overthrow the king and stand in his place. What this line actually means is that lawyers independent of the state are the final bastion of civilised society. Without lawyers, society falls apart.
The Secret Barrister is an anonymous criminal barrister, who has been blogging for several years about the criminal justice system to great acclaim. The plight of the barrister is not, at least superficially, a terribly sympathetic one: fat cats caricatured by the press, living off the proceeds of a generous legal aid system. As the Secret Barrister puts it, ‘for professional advocates, barristers do a strikingly bad job of explaining what we do, or why it matters’. The Secret Barrister takes on this thankless task, following the life of a criminal trial, from charge through to appeal, dispelling myths, righting wrongs and telling anecdotes.
There are, it quickly becomes apparent, a few problems. The Crown Prosecution Service is judged only on how many convictions it secures. Among the decent, hard-working solicitors there exist some less scrupulous, ready to sell clients down the river for a guilty plea and a quick buck. And magistrates — who are barely trained, and overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and elderly — sit in judgment over 90 per cent of cases.
The narrative problem here is that many of these inadequacies have the same cause: a lack of government funding. That the author manages not to make this same conclusion feel repetitive is remarkable. The book is impeccably researched, and the arguments are backed to the nines with statistics and worked examples. Laid out calmly, the facts do what facts should do, but often don’t: they clarify and convince.
The Secret Barrister’s book is a call to arms: a desperate, last-ditch attempt to open the eyes of those outside the profession to the injustices which exist within our justice system. Yet it remains an optimistic book, offering answers and solutions. Occasionally, chunks of prose do feel as though they’d begun life as discrete blog posts, but this immensely impressive volume manages to make a subject that is bleak and dry utterly compelling.