The Secret Barrister (henceforth TSB) is, as their name implies, an anonymous barrister with a hit blog taking a look behind the scenes of the criminal justice system. Their book, subtitled Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, is pretty much the same thing: it guides us through the life of a criminal case, from the first hearing at a magistrates’ court through to sentencing and appeal, looking at the principles behind the process and how they actually work in practice.
TSB is a strong supporter of the system in principle, arguing that the adversarial nature of the process pitting defendant and prosecution against each other – as compared with justice systems in some parts of Europe where the state collects the evidence and trials are more about fact-finding than seeking to prove one case or another – is the best way to ensure that only the guilty beyond reasonable doubt are found guilty. The “but” is depressingly predictable: in practice, years of underfunding have left the system straining under the load: the Crown Prosecution Service doesn’t have the time to chase up vital documents; court dates are postponed indefinitely because there aren’t enough magistrates to hear all of them; cuts to legal aid leave wrongly accused people deep in debts they have no way to pay back.
It’s an informative, accessible look at a system that often seems cloaked in bureaucracy and impenetrable legalese – a system many of us don’t think about until we’re already in its clutches. And it’s a useful corrective to much received wisdom about how that system works (received, it has to be said, mainly from film & TV. Did you know that British judges don’t actually use gavels?). Recommended if you’re at all interested in justice, public service or law.