Two legal volumes hit the top of my TBR pile together. In Your Defence by Sarah Langford and The Secret Barrister (author unknown for obvious reasons).
Both books, written by professional barristers have a desired agenda: to present to the general public a picture of the justice system from the point of view of the prosecuting or defending bench.
These two books are not Scandi-police procedural novels, they are a genuine attempt to get us, the benefiters of a good, honest and just legal system, to understand better what is actually happening in court.
The Secret Barrister is a cry of alarm, using many exhaustively detailed reasons why our justice system is being steadily undermined, the author is desperately trying to get us to wake up. Fuelled by lurid newspaper reports we spend an unusual amount of our attention devoted to complaining about the National Health Service while at the same time our Justice system is being financially squeezed out of existence.
A country in which justice is eroded and enough people cannot see that justice is being done, will eventually take matters in its own hands: vigilante groups; rag-tag revenge gangs; summary local justice may follow, and that will mean anarchy.
In a single stroke of the Chancellor’s pen, the tax on beer was reduced by a penny, while the tax on cider and spirits was held level at the same time that the budget for the Justice system was slashed by an more or less equal amount. This does not make any sense.
The Secret Barrister asks why that should matter to us? The answer is that one day it might be you or me. If we were prosecuted, whether innocent or guilty as charged, we would want to have proper representation. But that, especially in the civil courts is becoming exceeding expensive, and beyond the reach of a growing proportion of the population. This book, though, deals specifically with the criminal courts, where legal aid is also steadily being eroded so that even middle income people are having to find the wherewithal to defend themselves privately.
In Your Defence, heartily endorsed by Helena Kennedy QC, is of a different kind. This is a book which, using an amalgam of disguised cases, demonstrates examples of how the law deals with different situations. Each chapter begins with an extract from different Acts of Parliament which are effective in law. For example: Children and Young Persons Act 1933. In this chapter, we look at a particular trial (which is not one trial but a simulacrum of many similar) from the defence barrister’s engagement, through to the trial itself and its outcome. The amount of time is takes to mount a defence, to defend and as well as to counsel the defendant. Each chapter has one defendant standing for many, and disguised so that there is no possibility of true identification.
But read in tandem with The Secret Barrister, it is a window on to a world that most of us hope never to visit.
Just as the NHS is there for those in need from the cradle to the grave, so the justice system should be also, and is not. If your chosen (or unchosen but real) lifestyle has led you to rely on the health service to get you back on your feet, you would not be impressed if the doctor was able to say, on your arrival in his surgery, “this injury/illness is a direct result of your actions, pay for the remedy yourself”. But as The Secret Barrister points out, this is very much the case in the courts. You may well find yourself funding your own defence, and if you have enough but not a huge amount of money and few assets you may find yourself in the claws of a very inadequate level of professional assistance, of failing that have to defend yourself (litigant-in-person) which might be disastrous, all because you and your spouse of partner are not eligible for legal aid.
Everyone should know about this and this is one way to find out. The next step is to do something about it. Letters to your MP, anyone?