Book review: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister

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Publisher: Macmillan (March 2018)
Format: Hardcover (384pp); eBook; audio book
ISBN: 978-1509841103
RRP: £16.99


One of the nicest questions I’ve ever been asked is ‘are you the Secret Barrister?’ I am not sure when my husband thinks I am surreptitiously curating an award-winning blog, running an informative myth-busting twitter feed, or writing what has already been referred to as one of the books of the year. He did ask the question in response to a small rant of mine about the daily inequities one encounters in the justice business. But he did the Secret Barrister a disservice, for this book is no rant. It is passionate advocacy of the highest standard, with all the sweary asides you can’t say in court.

It introduces you to the key players and agencies in the criminal justice system, examines their purpose and dissects how far the reality of their functioning falls short. The critique offered has been referred to by some reviewers as mordant, and I know what they mean: the Secret Barrister would undoubtedly do a good line in withering cross examination. But there is something else in the tone. Something actually rather measured in all the circumstances; something realistic but not resigned; something that is still in love with the job and offering concrete suggestions for improvement. It is the tone of someone who has compassion in their heart when explaining to a defendant that the key to their case is unlikely to be the fact that the Vauxhall they had in 1987 was definitely teal and not green, even if they do have the photographs to prove it.

I’ve no doubt many readers of Counsel will already be aware of the Secret Barrister’s work and although they may think s/he is A Good Thing, question why they should purchase a copy – they know, after all. Firstly, all non-criminal practitioners should read it because it tells the truth about the criminal justice system with a candour that most of your criminal practitioner friends will not feel able to unleash on you. Whilst many commercial/civil practitioner friends say things like ‘you legal aid lawyers are all absolute saints’, one can’t help but feel sometimes that they mentally add ‘although you don’t actually do any law, really, do you?’ A general feeling that things can’t be that bad, and that for every swing there must be a roundabout. It’s like teachers complaining about violence in the classroom: they do get those long holidays though! Well, certainly sometimes and some places it is that bad, and we are not saints. One of the things we value most is the support of our fellow professionals, and the more informed that support is, the better. Once you hear the intelligent voice of a professional defending their specialism, you too will defend it as part of your profession, and as real specialism, with real problems, and not as a worthy but law-lite hobby that could be done by planning lawyers in their spare time.

"This book is not just about explaining the legal system to non-lawyers, it’s also about explaining to lawyers why we should have honest conversations with the public about the legal system. It’s a call to each of us to de-mystify and de-bunk in our own social and professional circles"

Secondly, all senior criminal practitioners should read it, because things have got worse since you started and you need to see the challenges facing your junior colleagues laid out in crisp prose, and not rely on a few weary words from the most junior tenant who doesn’t want to look weak or rock the boat.

Thirdly, all junior criminal practitioners should read it, and should be challenged by the last couple of chapters which examine the pros and cons of the adversarial system we are all so invested in defending. The author talks frankly about dark nights of the soul experienced when the question ‘how do you defend someone when you think they are guilty’ isn’t just a rhetorical set-piece but becomes a question you have to really ask yourself, staring at a piece of unused material the prosecution have missed. The carefully reasoned conclusion that s/he arrives at, that it is the least worst system available if we want to live in a free society, is an important one, and it’s important to engage with the clear and unsentimental reasoning that lead to it. So read it, and re-examine your past glories and heartaches with humility about the circumscribed good we can each achieve and with pride in a system that can guard against many evils.

This book is not just about explaining the legal system to non-lawyers, it’s also about explaining to lawyers why we should have honest conversations with the public about the legal system. It’s a call to each of us to de-mystify and de-bunk in our own social and professional circles. Everyone who reads this book should feel heartened in their task of doing just that: and if you end up falsely accused of being the Secret Barrister, you can consider yourself very lucky indeed.

Reviewer: Mary Cowe, Guildhall Chambers, Bristol and Counsel Editorial Board

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Mary Cowe

Mary is a criminal barrister at Guildhall Chambers, Bristol and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.