Sarah Langford’s brilliant first book, In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law, was published in 2018. The stories held within its pages are beautifully told, uplifting, heart-breaking, funny and true, allowing the reader almost to breathe the air and observe up close the melancholic but life-changing drama of the daily experiences in our family and criminal courts. The reviews were all enthusiastically positive; one described Langford as having ‘the observational skills of Alan Bennett and the heart of Charles Dickens’. These were ‘stories’ of the work we do that needed to be told. Sarah has a rare gift. She writes with humanity, wit and empathy; each story gently embedding a simple but profound message about the damage the law can wreak, or the redemption it can achieve. If you haven’t yet read it yourself, or bought it for at least one friend, you must.

I talk to Sarah, inevitably on Zoom, about the new book she has embarked upon. Perhaps unexpectedly, it’s a book about farmers, farming and the countryside. The working title is For a Love of the Land. It is inspired by her young family’s move to a cottage in Suffolk and their regeneration of 200 acres of adjacent land. It set her thinking about the parallels between farming and farmers, and the law and barristers. ‘Farming is an identity not just a job. It’s who they are. It’s in people’s bones and blood, it’s not just how they spend their day.’ But the popular perceptions often miscast the reality: ‘If you ask most people in the city what they think of farmers they’ll have a list of stereotypes as long as if you ask a black cab driver what they think of barristers. Usually negative. Usually involving being wealthy, for barristers and farmers. But so many are quite the opposite.’

Sarah is determined, as before, to tell the authentic stories. Her paean to the farmer’s life will be part memoir, as she will be describing her own journey to educate and immerse herself in the land for which she and her husband are now responsible. The organic regeneration, the restoring of hedgerows, the techniques used to increase carbon capture by the soil, the transformative effect this has, and the old tithe maps which reveal ‘which bits used to be water meadows’ will all be woven in. ‘It requires a massive campaign to explain what farmers do and why it is so important, even if you don’t live in the countryside. It’s the same for barristers. The law is important to everyone even if you never set foot in a courtroom. We all assume the law’s benevolent protection. With the countryside, we assume the air will be clean, rivers will be clean, soil will do what it’s supposed to, and the landscape will look how it looks. There isn’t a part of the countryside that hasn’t been shaped by a farmer’s hands. It’s a living history.’

Her enthusiasm and incredible knowledge blazes through our conversation: ‘There has been so much reawakened interest in the countryside, perhaps driven by the restlessness of lockdown; a desire to breathe and move again.’ We talk about James Rebanks’ globally bestselling books, the Yorkshire Shepherdess being one of the most watched programmes, Farmdrop, run by an ex-Amazon executive, bringing the best produce direct from farms to the city’s doorsteps. I learn about ‘calf at foot’ dairies, which produces less milk but goes some way to addressing ethical concerns around milk production, the return to mixed farming, where all the animals ‘run together’, chickens, sheep and cows, the ‘closed loop’ system and ‘mob grazing’.

Skills learned in court will be deployed to extract the material she needs: ‘I haven’t yet met a farmer who doesn’t have a story. They’re my new clients. I’m putting them on trial. I’ve got to examine them in chief to get their stories.’ There will be a great deal of travel involved, traversing the country to reach some amazing characters. Sarah gives an example of a farmer in deepest Cornwall, without a mobile phone, TV or computer, who had no idea we were in the midst of a global pandemic. He was baffled his neighbour couldn’t simply accompany him as usual to his solicitor to witness his signature. It reminded me of my uncle, also a farmer, who used to play his baby grand piano in his wellies, string tied around his well-worn sheepskin jacket, and stayed only one night away from his farm in 25 years. Yet he had more tales than anyone I have ever known.

I tentatively ask Sarah what of practice. Her first book impressed with its cleaving commitment to her work as a barrister. ‘Crime was the reason I came to the Bar in the first place. It was all I ever wanted to do but family paid more and was also more predictable.’ The conversation inevitably turns to the experience of being a woman at the Bar, and separately, and additionally, having young children; Sarah now has two boys. ‘I remember starting to do more family hearings and being completely bowled over by how many women there were in a family court compared to how many men there were in a criminal court. It was the opposite.’ The culture was very different too. ‘I don’t know if that (gender) balance has meant that the family courts who spend a large proportion of their day talking about the needs of children are more alert to the realities of the domestic and home life than the criminal courts are.’ The result has been that women in mixed sets gravitate away from criminal work. ‘Friends in other chambers have felt it has undermined their practice development if they need to attend a school play or take half term off, being asked on their return “did you have a nice holiday?”, and being seen as not as serious or reliable as male colleagues who don’t, and who then get rewarded for it.’

Nevertheless, Sarah is more optimistic about the future and believes things have started to change. ‘I think there has been massive change in the last couple of years. The Western Circuit Women’s Forum report which contained a great deal of statistical data as well as anecdotal experience about why and how many women have been leaving was incredibly important. There has been an enormous culture shift in the last couple of years, a really positive one. So many more discussions are taking place, articles published, professional groups being formed addressing these issues, to encourage women back. This would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. I think the #MeToo movement has allowed women to say things they would previously have been censored or punished for.’ It is perhaps an indicator of how bad things have been that it is considered progress, which it unquestionably is, just to begin to talk about the huge barriers women still face in pursuing a career at the Bar particularly in crime. The attrition rate for women in the 8- to 12-year call bracket continues to be appalling. Sarah believes things will improve as the male dinosaurs (not her words) at the top end of the profession and judiciary retire. The recent comments by our most senior judge about criminal justice needing a return to physical attendance at pre-trial hearings if justice was to be done was deeply demoralising for many. And it is not true. Remote hearings are at least as efficient, give progress on equality a real chance, and go some small way to mitigating the pathetic fees for so much of what criminal barristers do.

© Richard Allenby-Pratt:

Sarah faced the constant dilemma about how to combine young children with continued practice: ‘I couldn’t work out how to make it work. How you pay for expensive care for a 12-month old on a junior’s salary. If you end up breaking even, then I suppose you can justify it by saying you are putting work back into your career but if it ends up costing you money and you don’t see your child at all I couldn’t see the point in it. Friends who went on parental leave at the same time and returned to practice have very much changed their practice areas and are now all completely civil. You have a much more predictable diary and you are earning much more. I don’t know [many] who went back to do criminal of my gang. I tried to find women with pre-school age children who were in court every day. I found one. I asked her how she did it. She said I have a nursery at the end of my road open from 8.00am to 6.00pm, my mum lives round the corner and my husband’s employer is very flexible. I thought that counts me out. A majority of women end up with the majority of care giving responsibilities. That is the reality, there’s no point pretending it isn’t.’

Again, Sarah believes that things will improve. Role models are emerging, chambers are introducing policies and structures to encourage and ease a return to practice. ‘If you get them back, they will stay for 30 years. The best chambers are much more forward thinking about parental leave, rent breaks, even loans. A woman in my chambers took ten years out and has just become a QC. These role models are so essential. We need to see a wave of women like this. There is no single way of doing it, with support we have flexibility to paint our own picture.’

When Sarah was pregnant with her second child she met her agent, who she obviously adores, signed the book deal when her son was ten days old, and wrote In Your Defence in his first year. She describes her new book as a ‘real wild card’, and says it took a while to persuade her agent to go with it. The new book’s theme does come from somewhere; her grandparents were farmers, who she lived with at one stage for six months. Her uncle now runs it. Her father was a land agent so she grew up ‘in this farming network’ in Hampshire. She had left the countryside behind for the city until, ‘accidentally’, she ended up renting the cottage in Suffolk, which ‘still doesn’t have central heating’.

Part of the motivation behind the book is to challenge messages ‘being put out by Netflix and the BBC in a series of documentaries about meat being the most damaging thing ever, responsible for climate change, and many other environmental problems. This was not really what I was seeing. I was seeing lots of farmers putting hedgerows back in, turning over corners of unproductive land to wildflowers, doing regenerative farming, farming in a way that sucks carbon into the soil. I got back to London in 2019 just after Veganuary, and you couldn’t get on a tube without seeing adverts making an eco argument for giving up meat. But I knew that buying veg that has been imported, or grown using a large amount of chemicals in a hugely intensive system was significantly worse, ecologically, than eating a steak from a pasture-fed cow that had lived down the road. So that’s when I pitched the book to my agent who originally said, “No, that’s incredibly boring.” But I won her round.’ Sarah now starts her day at 5.00am writing for an hour and a half before her boys wake up.

As a formerly ardent, leafleting ‘Remainer’, Sarah believes Brexit is a real opportunity for farming. Freed from the dead weight yoke of the CAP [common agricultural policy], ‘which hindered innovation’, the new mantra is ‘public money for public good’. People like James Dyson or the Duke of Westminster will no longer get huge pay outs ‘simply because they own vast swathes of land what will trigger payments will be what you are doing with it from a public benefit perspective; regenerating soils, cleaning streams and rivers, restoring hedgerows, planting trees, capturing carbon will earn you money. It is going to be a big shock. People will have to change their thinking’. However, ‘the big flaw is that the government has refused to prohibit imports from countries that don’t do any of that. So there is no legal restriction on any deal with the US, for example, to stop food being imported which has been produced using much lower environmental and ethical standards than our own farmers are obliged to keep. No amount of hedgerows could compete with that. A free trade deal that allows the market to be flooded with cheap meat, pumped full of crap would be catastrophic.’

These issues are hugely divisive within the farming community too. People Sarah knows well bridle at words like ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’ and ‘rewilding’. ‘If you admit you’ve been doing this wrong for 40 years, not just doing it wrong, but causing great damage, that negates your legacy. That’s why there is great resistance to it.’ Sarah, with her gifts and insight, is perfectly placed to tell their stories. ‘They know you are writing a book about farming, and you’re asking them to go beyond crop yields, and want to dig into the emotional side of them.’ She will look at the countryside’s cultural capital, as well as its natural capital, like ‘fell farmers who feel as hefted to the land as their sheep do. But do you drive people who have a cultural rural connection away because they are not farming in the way you want them to?’

The talk of rural life brings us back to things justice, which was where we started. The closure of so many local courts, we agree, has been hugely negative on rural communities, denying the essence of ‘justice’ which should be done locally rather than far away. It also imposes huge burdens on defendants, victims, witnesses and their families, who have to travel unconscionable distances, increasingly without public transport, if they want to participate.

The aspiration of Sarah Langford’s new book is to open up an important conversation, to improve empathy and understanding for farmers and where our food comes from, to promote a better sense that we are all connected, and our everyday choices have consequences. Even as a vegetarian I can’t wait to devour it. And I hope one day she will return to us.