Review published on April 14, 2018.
Just prior to the 1983 General Election, then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, delivered what must rank as one of the most poignant speeches ever made in British politics. In what might be called his “warning speech”, he warned of what would happen should Margaret Thatcher win. To paraphrase, he warned people not to get old, not to be young, not to get sick, not to do myriad other things – for the state wouldn’t be there to help them, nay, would actively do them harm.
Fast forward thirty-five years to the age of austerity and Kinnock’s fears appear warranted, albeit delayed somewhat. Depressingly, however, what he got wrong was the identification of a single bogeyman (in this case bogeywoman) in the shape of Margaret Thatcher. Rather, successive governments, of all stripes, have done in our public services.
The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken is at heart a forensic examination of the UK’s broken criminal justice system, but its lessons could easily be broadened and in many ways, it addresses issues that plague our public services more generally. It’s a sad tale of starved finances, neglect and political short-termism.
The criminal justice system sits in an unenviable position. We all know we might need the NHS, we all can envisage our stake in schools and education, but the criminal justice system? Surely, the people who come into contact with that are just criminals, bad people who deserve everything they get. This assumption, fed by poor tabloid journalism peddling myths and half-truths, has enabled governments to cut the system to the bone. The result? Guilty people going free and innocents convicted. In chapter after chapter, The Secret Barrister outlines how the system is failing all those who come into its orbit: victims, witnesses, defendants. Many are the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
The author wonders why we, as a nation, have allowed this dire situation to come to pass, and though the answer lies in part in the demonization of those who are characterised as coming before the courts – the criminals, the drug addicts – there’s another reason, too. As with the cuts to public services more broadly, a tragic fact is that the middle classes who need the services least are those most likely to vote. Middle-income voters can afford to pay to jump an NHS waiting list, they can shell out for a private tutor for their children, they never imagine they’ll be arrested and need a lawyer. The poor, who rely on public services most, tend not to swing elections.
But with the criminal justice system there’s a sting in the tail. In recent political discourse there’s been talk of the “squeezed middle”, it’s a phrase I intrinsically dislike, for the poor have always been hit hardest, but with criminal justice, under certain circumstances, it can actually ring true. Cuts to who qualifies for legal aid mean those on middle incomes, should they face trial, might have to spend tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal representation. Should they be found innocent, the state doesn’t reimburse a penny.
This is just one example of the system failing and there are many, many more. The axing of the Forensic Science Service – a world renowned and respected leader in the field – mean police forces now put out work to tender. In the current climate, this means the cheapest. The result? Some providers are good, some less so; many are unaccredited and the fear is that some are cowboy outfits. Indeed, already there have been scandals: in one recent case, thousands of drug tests were found to be fatally flawed, contaminated and thus discounted; cases were thrown out of court, convictions potentially overturned.
Then there are the payments received by barristers and solicitors. The rates they receive, the hours they can charge, the work they can bill for, all have been cut. The result? Professionals leaving their jobs, those that remain increasingly overworked. In such circumstances, can you rely on your lawyer going the extra mile, in effect working for free on your case? That’s if, as cited above, you qualify for legal aid at all.
I’m lucky to know a number of police officers in my private life. One officer, an armed officer in the Met, warned me with a weary sigh last year that cuts have consequences, a mantra repeated regularly by the Police Federation. I used to think this special pleading, assume that it was just police officers looking for a pay rise. Now I know better. Like many a jobbing junior barrister, The Secret Barrister both prosecutes and defends and is adamant that the system fails both. Criminals ARE walking free due to the mayhem cuts have strewn through the police, the Crown Prosecution System, the courts. Equally, innocent defendants are almost certainly being found guilty, perhaps even going to prison. All this is an inalienable truth, known to all who work in the system.
It’s difficult to do this book justice in a review; really anyone reading this should beg, borrow, buy a copy and read it. I challenge you not to come away shocked to the core by just how bad things are. For this title really does explain what the Police Federation have warned for so long: cuts really do have consequences.
So, in conclusion things can’t go on like this, the system has to change. If they don’t, I fear I have no choice but to paraphrase Neil Kinnock: Don’t be a victim of crime, don’t be a perpetrator of crime; don’t be accused of a crime you didn’t commit; don’t be a witness. In fact, if you can humanly help it, don’t have anything to do with the Criminal Justice System whatsoever.
James Pierson 5/5
The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister
Macmillan 9781509841103 hbk Mar 2018
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