Dear Prime Minister and Home Secretary

What lawyers do – a corrective and a manifesto. By Dexter Dias QC

Dear Prime Minister and Home Secretary,

You say the criminal justice system is broken.
Who has broken it, and why?

We are a small jurisdiction, it is true,
an island shored off a great continent
living under rolling clouds
and something else –
the rule of our precious law.

In the collective trauma we are going through
the loss of over 50,000 lives,
healthcare heroes risked everything for us
and were justly feted by us all.

But there were other key workers
continuing unnoticed,
going into cells and courtrooms
with no protection or support.

And think of the praise and thanks they received:
a series of slurs from the highest offices of state.

It is always inconvenient to power
to have the light shone upon it,
to have the clearest possible mirror held up
so it can see what the use and abuse of power
truly does.

What do you see when you look there?
We know it is inconvenient
to have an audaciously independent Supreme Court,
or to have to abide by the requirements
of recognised international law.

In a time of crisis, your fingers creep towards Delete
and there is a temptation
to tear up all these things
that have served us so well.

Think before you do so.

You see: others have run your experiment
– undermining lawyers, flouting the rule of law –
and the results are always the same:

a diminishing of democracy
and the greater vulnerability of the weak.

We do not gloat about your many failures:
the buckets in leaking court buildings
the peeling plaster
the sodden corridors
broken toilets, overflowing sinks
sanitation that is a disgrace;

the inhumanity rife within our prisons:
the 23-hour lock-ups
the attempted suicides
the contagions of self-harm –
particularly in women’s institutions –
the spiralling madness and paranoia and despair.

So, no:
we do not gloat but grieve,
because we know:
it is the least able to protect themselves
who will be damaged and suffer the most.
And damage such as this seeps
unstoppably through the social fabric;
damage such as this cannot be contained.
It does and will continue
to impact us all.

If you could hear them.
If you could see them;
all these pictures of that other Britain
we contend with every day.
We go to bed thinking about it.
We wake in the night worrying about it.

If you walked a mile in their shoes,
which is our daily job,
To understand and help and guide and advise
people at the worst point in their lives.

And you dare denigrate us for all this
and deride what we do.

Sometimes we are abused 
and shouted at and manhandled
by clients in their anger and their rage:
addicts and depressives,
the cognitively challenged, street sleepers,
care leavers, people with no dad
and those who are running from them.
People who live below the poverty line
whose only bank is
a food one.

The sheer complexity and brokenness of the lives
it is our duty to represent.

The young woman who shook so much 
recalling the chronic abuse
she suffered as a child
as if she were on a gyrating plate.
And yet lawyers talked her round,
persuaded her to testify about her pain
and protect other children in the act,
despite all the delays your actions exacerbate.
Despite them.

These little things, these little lives
lived in the cracks and margins
of who we are.

The woman who asked to stay in prison
because there was no support or counselling
in a world that did not care.

But lawyers were there for her, talked to her,
found her – somewhere;
connected her to – something
she dimly recognised as who she once was.

And they didn’t get paid for these extra things
but did them anyway
because they are right.

Yet you deride them as do-gooders,
an infantile slur,
the shameful sneering of those who pass by
and turn indifferently away.

The taut-faced youth who was suicidal
whom lawyers spent unpaid hours finding rehabilitation for,
And who turned around his life and wept
for how close to the end he’d come.

The fear-filled eyes of mothers and children
with no place of refuge
because the refuges have been shut.

This. Every. Day.
This multiplied dizzyingly in courts across the land,
this replicated countless times 
through countless court lists
on countless days.

Our professional lives are filled with it.
We return exhausted to our homes
and cannot bear to relate the sheer scale
of the daily devastation we have seen.

Yet we carry on, and return
when many would not.
Again and again, year after year, 
decade after decade,
until our time on this spinning globe is used up.

There is a name for all this:
it is called a vocation.

Dear Prime Minister and Home Secretary,
we are proud of what we do.
We are proud of who we are
and what we stand for
and have devoted our lives to.
And nothing you say will deter us from this course.

You will never witness or help bring about
the everyday epiphanies of ordinary lives,
the little explosions of renewed hope,
and you are the poorer for it.

And it is this lack of connection with the living truth,
the suffering and joy of the people around us –
the lost and the lonely,
the heartbroken and hurting,
people with little English,
people with little hope –
that enables you to make the comments
you so carelessly make.

We are the worst advocates in our own cause
for the public does not know 
the extent of what we do.
Because we don’t preen or boast
or create photo opportunities or propagandist tweets
with ambient music paid for out of taxpayers’ money.
We have seen jurors who didn’t want to sit on a case
in tears when they return verdicts weeks later
because a part of them has been transformed
and they know they have been part of something
bigger than any one of us.

A belief that justice matters
and is different to the needs of the latest incumbent
of a fleeting office of state
with a fleet of state cars
and unelected special advisers 
going on car trips of their own.

The public understands the contempt 
of those in power
when they see it.

We do not do this job because it is easy
but because it is hard,
And because we believe 
a humane modern democracy
should protect the rights 
of everyone within its realm.

You call this our ‘grand theory’.
It is something altogether more:
an aspiration generations have sacrificed for
and strived towards
grounded in the sense of fairness that has marked
this land since Magna Carta.

What do you imagine that was about?

Yet our words are written in the wind,
our thousand small acts of compassion unseen.
We cover and crisscross the country,
sometimes paying more to get there 
than we will be paid.
Our junior colleagues are in debt;
our senior practitioners pension-less.
No one pays for the holidays
we rarely, sporadically, sometimes are unable 
to take.
We work almost every evening;
virtually no weekend is free;
it never stops and nor do we.

And yet you say 
it is we who have broken the system
you have been dismantling.

Those of us who work in the leaking, crumbling,
decrepit, scorched earth criminal justice estate,
do not fear you.
Our professional oath is to act without
fear or favour.
What, we wonder, is yours?

But we do fear for the vulnerable
whose rights you disregard.

Our job is to keep shining a light
into the dark corners of the state.
One never knows what one will find there.

We might find you.

We have been the voice of the voiceless,
the unpopular and unheard.
The rule of law requires it,
thrives on it,
is it.

Will you ever understand?

Have you considered 
whether the safety of professionals
going about their lawful jobs
has been endangered by your words?
Do you know
or even care?

Dear Prime Minister and Home Secretary,
We subscribe to a different and higher vision:
a nation under the rule of law
that is safety net and shield
and not subservient to the basest instincts
of intolerance, hatred and lies.

For two thousand years ago, 
a great Greek taught us
that justice is not the default condition 
of the universe.
It does not fall like gentle rain.

No, justice is also a verb:
and we become just
by doing just things.

The damage your comments cause 
is unfathomable.
And here we are
looking at the next court list
and steeling our resolve.

We tell ourselves
that what has been broken can be unbroken
but not by the architects of its ruination
whatever the administration
with its particular degradation 
of what was once good
and of which we were proud:

the pillar at the heart
of where justice starts.

Darker clouds roll over these locking down isles
and the rule of law is torn.

For what is it when officers of law and order
provoke lawlessness and disorder?
And continue to do so when lives are at risk?
And keep glutting themselves on the conceit,
jeopardising lives further with the repeat.

And for what?
For career, for ideology, for self-advancement,
for clicks.

Ultimately, then, this we understand:
a contempt for human rights
is a contempt for human life.

And history will judge.

Dear Prime Minister and Home Secretary,
The criminal justice system is not just broken
but bleeding.

Who has left it that way
and why?

 

Published on 18/11/2020. This will appear in the December 2020 issue of Counsel.
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Dexter Dias QC

Dexter Dias QC practises in human rights law and is a Visiting Researcher at Cambridge University. He is the author of The Ten Types of Human: who we are and what we can be (Penguin Random House: 2018). Twitter: @DexterDiasQC