The Secret Barrister addresses the calamitous state of the English legal system, which seems to be failing on many fronts. Systemic errors, combined with chronic underfunding, mean that oftentimes the guilty go free and the innocent are jailed. Written by a practising criminal law barrister it paints a devastating picture of an institution that appears to be on the verge of collapse.
The “wild west” of magistrates’ courts; the remorseless processing of cases with no regards to the quality of justice; the widespread failures by police and prosecutors to disclose key evidence; the “perverse” legal aid incentives which discourage proactive, quality defence lawyering – the Secret Barrister blows the whistle on all these failings and more.
Tapping on stories from their own first-hand experiences in the criminal justice system, the Secret Barrister also makes a strong case for why its deterioration should concern everyone. The book continuously points out that the system’s failings come at a steep human cost in the form of miscarriages of justice. And it challenges the widespread belief “that it will never be me”.” It in fact easily could be you, the Secret Barrister explains, or someone you love. Anyone can say they will never commit a crime. No-one can say that they won’t be falsely accused of one.
After a brief introduction to the history of the English legal system, whose origins lies deep in the past, the reader will be enlightened as to the second-class nature of justice in the Magistrates’ Court, which is explained in detail. The very thought of being tried there is terrifying. Rank amateurs, still badly lacking in diversity, with little training and an inbuilt bias in favour of the evidence of police officers try 94% of all criminal cases. This isn’t justice however summary it might be. Meanwhile defence lawyers are routinely insulted by endless Ministry of Justice (MoJ) “initiatives” designed to speed things up even more than they already are, which simply means more mistakes get made.
The implication of such initiatives is that delay is all the fault of defence lawyers rather than a good illustration of what happens when the prosecuting authority is stripped of a third of its staff and a quarter of its budget in just a few years. And if you think this is as bad as it gets, well it isn’t. The senior judges have in mind to make things worse by reducing the right to jury trial, doubling magistrates’ sentencing powers and then, if you please, restricting rights of appeal. In short, justice in the Magistrates’ Court isn’t justice in the sense that any of us would understand. Justice has been reduced to a tick box exercise of getting cases marshalled and dispatched through the sausage factory.
But as the reader will find out things are little better in the Crown Court. There is more than an air of despair as the author explains why the courts system failed to protect Amy from her abusive partner because the police seemingly could not be bothered to do the most basic work such as taking a witness statement and obtaining her medical records. And it isn’t only complainants who suffer. The case of Warren Blackwell, imprisoned on the word of a fantasist for an offence he was simply innocent of is enough to make your blood boil.
Of course disasters of this kind are nothing new as the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and many others can attest. But a system that has always had it in it to get things badly wrong has been transformed into one where it is increasingly difficult to get things right by the endless series of cuts to staff, courtrooms, the CPS, the availability of legal aid, and the rates of pay to those lawyers still undertaking the most badly paid legal work in this country.
Someone who has traced criminal justice’s decline into cesspitdom may be left thinking ‘yes, I knew this already’ (even if ‘this’ is told in a punchier, sassier way than the language of journals and news reports). But, what steers Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken into ‘must-read for anyone thinking of joining the profession’ territory is the first part of its title: the stories.
About a third of the way into the text, we meet Amy Jackson (all names pseudonyms), a young woman domestically abused for years by ex-prisoner Rob McCulloch. Aged 22 when Rob “really lost his shit”, Amy was dragged by her hair outside of the couple’s house and repeatedly punched, suffering severe facial injuries.
It could have been an open-and-shut case, yet missing papers led to multiple adjournments and, eventually, all charges being dismissed. “I don’t know where the fault truly lay,” a blindsided TSB comments, “I just know that something, somewhere, went very, very wrong.”
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.
Indictment of the collapse of the British criminal law system
This is a shocking book and a must read. A lot of the criticism arises from the deliberate policies of the most recent two governments to undermine the system by starving it of resources and killing off legal aid, but the problem goes back a long way and this is not ignored. It includes an excellent history of the English criminal law system, much of which was news to me. The vast bulk of trials are conducted by untrained amateurs in the Magistrates Courts. It may be cheap but it is not cheerful. I suspect it was even worse in the past but was cheerfully overlooked as those with political power and clout were rarely negatively affected by it. I would have thought that most of the criticism clearly explained here would offend people from across the political spectrum, but it seems that this is not the case. There is a huge anti-justice lobby, recently concentrated in the Conservative and Liberal parties. Despite the trenchant criticism – intended not only to expose the faults of the system but also to ram home how important it is to society as a whole, I’m not optimistic that anything will change. If it does change this book will have been one of the catalysts.
Takes the reader deep into the bowels of the criminal justice system…the message of this entertaining book is delivered with great skill…the book is at once a lament and a celebration…the justice system as not just for criminals and victims but for all of us – it is the symbol of our nation’s humanity (The Times)
Terrifying and occasionally hilarious… this is an eye-opening, if depressing, account of the practice of law today. Perhaps there is hope, but the author leaves us in no doubt that urgent reform is needed (The Observer)
This excellent book will hopefully raise awareness of what has been, until now, a silent crisis. It is at once a vicious polemic, a helpful primer and a cringe-inducing account of one barrister’s travails (Daily Telegraph)
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