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The Secret Barrister

Review by: Profile Editorial Team, 31/10/2020


Britain has a new masked crusader. Fans of Top Gear (at least in the classic years) will be familiar with The Stig, and art fans swoon over Banksy’s irreverent murals, but we have never had a masked barrister come along to demythologise criminal law for us. Until now.

Nobody knows who The Secret Barrister is.  ‘Signed’ copies of his/her books were simply marked SB. We don’t even know if SB is a she or a he. For convenience I will assume that he is a she for this review, and hope not to cause offence. For all we know The Stig, The Secret Barrister and Banksy might be the same person, travelling from town to town defending the innocent by day and painting something heretical on the courtroom walls by night. But probably not.

The Secret Barrister has written two books. The first is simply titled The Secret Barrister (Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken), and it’s a gem. A disturbing gem, because it rapidly becomes clear that criminal law in England and Wales is in a mess. SB takes us on a series of fictionalised courtroom journeys (based on real cases)  to show just how broken our criminal justice system has become.

it rapidly becomes clear that criminal law in England and Wales is in a mess

SB starts off by telling the reader “Hopefully our paths will never cross. But if they do, I can guarantee that, like an undertaker or a clinician at an STD clinic brandishing a cotton bud, it will be at one of the lowest points in your life”. That gentle humour permeates the book, a light tone which helps to leaven both the serious content (the law, that sort of thing) and the frankly shocking.

There is plenty to shock, from gross miscarriages of justice – such as a sexual assault which never happened, which the police didn’t believe had happened and where the complainant had lots of form for making false claims, yet the accused ended up in jail for several years – to cases where undoubtedly guilty people walked free.

We all have our ideas of why the courts get it wrong, through our extensive training on Netflix – slick barristers, legal technicalities – but the truth appears to be vastly more mundane. The legal system, at least in England & Wales, has been broken through years of neglect and underfunding. SB describes a morning where she had just 10 minutes notice to prosecute 7 trials in the same day – with no prep time whatsoever. While this is an extreme case it also appears to be fairly common, and to reflect a system where ‘make do and mend’ has become the norm. “Much prosecuting in the Magistrates’ court takes the form of someone getting to their feet and presenting a case they have never set eyes on before”. As terrifying as this must be for the barrister ‘winging it’ on a wet Tuesday, spare a thought for the defendant and victim, neither of whom might be getting a fair shake. “If you are accused of a crime, there is roughly a 50 per cent chance that the prosecution hasn’t fully prepared for the first hearing”. Chilling.

SB is a fervent demythologiser. Some of the factoids may be familiar to you – judges in British courts have never used gavels, for example – while others are genuinely unexpected. 94% of trials in England & Wales never see a jury, being dealt with by magistrates only. SB’s disdain for magistrates is so open as to be sufficient explanation for her anonymity – she describes scenes of such buffoonish amateurishness as to make any innocent defendant quite fearful of coming before people whose only qualifications for the role are that they’ve shown a bit of community spirit and they quite fancy having a go at judging people. SB invites the reader to consider how keen they would be to let a keen amateur surgeon loose on their body. Fair point.

As a criminal barrister SB takes her turn with cases, both defending and prosecuting (not simultaneously, obviously), taking the next case to come along (the ‘taxi for hire’ principle). This role earns criminal barristers less money than we might expect, with median net income around the £27k mark.

The Secret Barrister has performed a public service in laying bare the many failures in criminal justice in England and Wales

Frequent failures in communication between the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police lead to incomplete case files, vital evidence not disclosed and inevitable miscarriages of justice. “Walk into any criminal court in the land speak to any lawyer or ask any judge, and you will be treated to uniform complaints of court deadlines being repeatedly missed, cases arriving underprepared, evidence being lost, disclosure not being made, victims made to feel marginalised and millions of pounds of public money being wasted”.

The Secret Barrister has performed a public service in laying bare the many failures in criminal justice in England and Wales. The good news: all of this is fixable. The bad news: the trends in recent years have all been in the wrong direction. By focusing a forensic spotlight on the mundane but vital processes which keep the system working, and sometimes cause the system to fail, SB has shown politicians, policy-makers and the general public what needs to be fixed. Let’s hope somebody’s listening.

Also by The Secret Barrister

Posted in: non-fiction