I bought this book few months ago on Amazon sale. It came, landed on my TBR bookshelf and patiently waited for its time. It finally came after I read several books in a row revolving heavily around women and their lives. I felt it is time to dive into a different subject matter. And the legal system in UK didn’t seem a bad choice.
I expected something similar to This Is Going To Hurt, and in some aspects it is very similar. But it is also a very different author and a very different topic, hence the end result is very…yes, you got this…different. What is shared is a review of a very specialist profession done by an insider. And that’s about as far as the commonalities go.
The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specializing in criminal law. You can check out their blog here. Unlike Kay the Secret Barrister did not decide to abandon their profession and hence, I guess, the need for anonymity. Frankly, I am not surprised, no matter what laws we put in to protect whistle-blowers any and every profession will ostracize them when they are not anonymous. It’s almost like herd instinct.
The book is about the legal system in the UK, focusing on England. Often parallels are drawn to the problems NHS has, to make the obscure world of law more relatable to a layperson. Which is not wrong, as both professions deal with people’s lives.
Before I dive in a word of disclaimer, I come form a country with an inquisitorial legal system, very unlike the UK and US adversarial one. I’m sure there are pros and cons of both, but I honestly think everyone will naturally lean towards what they know, hence my preference of the inquisitorial one, and the Secret Barrister’s preference for the adversarial one (with the small difference I have absolutely no hands on experience with mine).
What we have in this book is effectively a trial on the legal system. Starting with the early days, where evidence is still collected, i.e. we are explained how the English legal system works. Though the indictments and bond hearings, all the way through trial, sentencing and appeal process.
Which forms a nice structure for the author to work within on two levels. First, explaining to us how the law actually works at each stage and what happens if we’re unlucky enough to land ourselves in the system. Second, it also judges the effectiveness of described system both in principle and in practice. And he practice part if often baffling, which is pretty typical, everything always looks sooo nice in theory.
Now, I won’t go through all the ways described in which the system is broken, it would simply take too long and you can read the book yourself. But I will focus on the few things I found most surprising or scary. So you’ll get a subjective take on the matter.
The thing I still find unbelievable are magistrate courts. Of course having read enough crime books I was aware of their existence both in UK and US legal system. What I was not aware of is that in the UK the judges there, called Justice of Peace, are volunteers with no formal legal training! None! Ok, when they are accepted they do get some basics training, but how can that compare to years of studying law?! WTF? I still cannot believe this.
Basically what it means is that 94% of criminal cases are ruled on by laypeople. They can send you to jail for up to year. It’s completely unbelievable for me. You can effectively be judged by your GP. Yes, granted they do have a legal advisor in the courtroom, but they have absolutely no obligation to follow their advice. It’s completely terrifying. The Secret Barrister rightly compares it to them entering the operating theater and telling you as patient not to worry, they will easily perform an operation on you, because they had basic medical training and their morale is impeccable.
So this one really shook me. Other things are down to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police passing all the evidence to the defense. Which should be happening but through many cuts both of those services are currently seriously understaffed so obviously things get lost. And, you know, it’s fine if things like your council tax get lost, where you can easily straighten it out. But it’s completely not fine when your biopsy results get lost, or the evidence that could effectively prove your innocence. This is not fine and never ok.
Another thing that the Secret Barrister rages against is what they call the Innocence Tax. Basically if you are accused, tried and found not guilty and you did not qualify for legal aid (under the current rules not many of us do), you will have to cover the cost of your legal representation. If you happen to stay in custody without bail, no one will compensate you for all the personal and career losses it’s caused you. No one will even say ‘I’m sorry we had the wrong person’. So effectively being wrongly accused you end up broke with a broken career and very possible broken family.
Now, what happens if they do sentence you and then the sentence if reversed during appeal? It’s even worse. First of all your chances of even getting to the Court of Appeal are slim to none. Then if you are able to prove your innocence, or at least that your guilt was not proven beyond doubt you will be released. And that’s it. No compensation, no apologies, no support in getting back to society. You actually get less support than the guilty criminal released after their sentence. Why should the system support you? You were not guilty, right? No need to rehabilitate you back to society.
With all those scary things one that we should be worrying about is that during our lifetimes either us or someone we know will end up in the criminal justice system. Either as a defendant or as a complainant or a witness. And by all accounts this is not pleasant for anyone. The question the Secret Barrister asks is why don’t we care then? Why do we care about NHS, but we don’t care about the legal system? If both can change our lives in equal measures.
The answer is twofold. One, we don’t even know how the system works, there is no broad legal education. Two, is more psychological, it’s the mental defense of ‘it only happens to other people’. Those two potent factors together allow us to bury our heads in the sand. And allow the politicians not lawyers to write law, and the results are dreadful. What is more, they impact every single one of us. And this is what the Secret Barrister really wants you to think about. How much should you care about the quality of the legal system you live and operate in? Can you allow yourself the luxury to remain ignorant about it?
Here you can find selected quotes from The Secret Barrister.