Who needs to know about the law?
I never thought that the British legal system would be the spooky tale I would share around the campfire this Halloween, but here I am. It only took the first few pages of The Secret Barrister to show just how much of a mystery the law is to me (and to the rest of the country.
If there is one book I would urge British people in particular to read, it would be this examination of the workings of our criminal courts.
When asked to think about our judicial system, several images would come to mind: fancy wigs, black gowns, a judge smashing the gavel as they yell “ORDER!”. In short, my concept of the legal system was an ill-defined hodgepodge of British and American melodramas.
I have no grasp on the archaic language of the law nor do I pretend to know any legislation beyond the obvious Dos and Don’ts. There are two reasons that this is a problem.
Firstly, it means that I wouldn’t have a single clue on how to navigate a system that I have never encountered before, neither as a defendant nor as a complainant. I don’t know the process, why some people are acquitted when most of us would think they were guilty or why I need representation and where to get it.
Secondly, it means that I do not know the issues that are currently plaguing the legal system and that endanger ordinary people like myself if we should have to face a criminal court case. Namely, the main issue is austerity.
I can see why The Secret Barrister is anonymously written. There are so many concepts to sink your teeth into only for this daring author to reveal the devastating effects of budget cuts on the judicial system. This exposé of British criminal courts could be damning to a barrister moving within such essential circles.
That being said, the writer’s voice is unmistakably clear, with their own personal spin on the anecdotes they tell and their own indignation at the lack of national outrage at the austerity measures in one of our most important institutions.
“If the criminal justice system were the NHS, it would never be off the front pages.” – The Secret Barrister
Dire Straits and Magistrates
The book is split evenly between detailed explanations on the cornerstones of the British legal system and how they function and the spirit of their existence.
There are even some great fun facts to store for your next dinner party such as why only criminal courts still wear the black gowns and powdered wigs. Then, each chapter has its own practical example of how these systems play out in the real world.
The difference between Crown and Magistrate Courts, for example, is outlined in a historical and theoretical rationale that explains why we have them in the first place. Weaved into this lesson is the story of Kyle, a repeat young offender that has given up on any prospect of turning his life around.
Three magistrate judges spend hours convincing him to take community service over a young offender’s institution, only for him to end up in prison anyway. This is just the story that eases us into the many problems that we encounter in the legal system.
The 25% cut of government spending on the legal system between 2010 and 2019 places our liberties in jeopardy. Cutting staff numbers, specifically in the Crown Prosecution Service, the creation of new laws, the push for fewer court adjournments in an attempt to streamline court cases have had terrifying repercussions on the public.
Compromised disclosure procedures, lack of financial compensation for the innocent (or “the Innocence Tax”), and a lack of empathy in courts for the harsh conditions that force our poorest and most marginalised people to commit crimes for survival are just a few of the deeply rooted problems we are now facing. These are just a few problems that The Secret Barrister shares with us.
“More times than I can recall I have heard the same monotone chiding of homeless alcoholics[…] the chair’s finger wags at the wretch in the dock, making little effort to hide his incredulity at why this man doesn’t just stop begging, put on a decent shirt and get a job.” — The Secret Barrister
Laughing Through the Pain
Although I’ve made this book out to be the dourest read you could possibly fathom, there were points where both the author and myself were able to find sincere humour. At times, I could sense the gallows humour I can imagine would be essential for anyone working in criminal courts.
I definitely appreciated that I was able to laugh at the sheer exasperation of everyone involved in the legal system without any ‘punching down’ at the working class magistrate court cases which seemed to be something of a bear trap in the first few chapters.
The importance of this book has become all the more apparent during the pandemic, the already existing backlog of court cases only increasing since Covid hit. The £1 billion push towards the digitisation of legal proceedings is at the risk of pushing for ‘progress’ and frugality while compromising a necessary level of empathy in court cases and without a substantial body of academic research to give this move the green light.
The Secret Barrister has completely derailed my reading journey this year, with my eye currently on their second book, Fake Law. Besides this particular author, I also recognise the importance to learn as much as I can about the inner workings of the British judicial system and the problems it is currently facing, and I would encourage all those in Britain (particularly England and Wales) to do the same.
Although it may make for a frightening read this month, in hindsight, the only thing that scares me more is that I might not have read it at all and continued in blissful ignorance about the institution that can protect or revoke my freedom.
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