My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Over the last ten years or so of a reasonably successful writing career, I’ve read many published books, and edited, mentored or winced over nearly as many unpublished. I’ve long since learned to pay no attention to the review quotes plastered on the covers of books in order to sell copies. Inevitably, they are considerably hyperbolic.
Except, for once, in the case of ‘The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’. The Observer quote adorning the front, ‘Terrifying…hilarious…eye-opening’ is absolutely bang on. It’s a horrible book…and utterly superb.
The author remains anonymous in book, twitter and TV series and I will not attempt to give theories on who the Secret Barrister (SB) is other than I agree with many who speculate this is a woman simply because the style, wit, intelligence and complete empathy with other human beings seems, to me, to point to a female. Such are the details of cases mentioned though that I do wonder if more people know who SB really is. I know that names, places and even some details will have been altered ‘to protect the innocent’ as they say, but nevertheless, I feel that if I did some digging I could probably narrow it down to, ahem, a rogue’s gallery of legal beagles. I’m sure others have already done this.
For my part, I don’t really care and have no desire to have the identity of SB revealed. I’d much rather they continue to produce critical works like this with impunity so that we, the general public, can learn things we need to know, before it is too late.
And that is very much the message of the book. Indeed in the summary at the end, SB even refers to the great error of the general populace that ‘it will never be me’. The fact is, the horrors of which SB speaks can and do happen to people ‘just like us’ and they are devastating when they do. SB reveals how almost every stage of court and prison life is beset with issues from the very nature of the Magistrates’ Court to sentencing and appeal, with ‘underfunding’ felt all too acutely throughout. It was soul-sucking just to read about it. God only knows what it is really like to have to experience it.
There are surprises along the way. It is easy to hold firm to the stereotype of the evil prosecution barrister, grimly rubbing their hands in anticipation of knowingly persuading a jury that an innocent person is guilty while the Judge bangs their gavel. SB brilliantly dispels myths (such as the non-existent gavel) and presents the case for the essential nature of prosecution and defence with all the fervour of a religious convert. You want this adversarial system, SB tells us, even when you are the defendant. The argument is really quite convincing.
Or at least, almost convincing. Despite the end of the book where SB makes it clear how much they love and admire all those who work in the justice system, battling the problems to make sure justice is served as much as possible, the author does too good a job at showing us all just how this goes wrong to make us convinced that, should we ever need to go to court, we are in safe hands. The fact is, without any malicious intent, errors happen in a system which is creaking with the burden of a caseload that is far too large. Add to that the reality that you really do get police officers who want to ‘stitch you up’ because it is better to put someone away for a crime than not put anyone away at all, and you really do get legal companies which are incompetent and aim to earn the largest fees with the least work, and you really do get judges (and certainly magistrates) who have little idea what they are doing…you begin to see why I say the Observer quote is so accurate. This is all so horrifying.
The offset for this is the wit and humour with which SB writes. How a book on law and the justice system can be ‘an easy read’ is baffling, but that’s exactly what this is. And so…I hesitate to say ‘entertaining’…interesting is the writing that this is one of the very few times where, the instant I’ve finished this book, I’ve immediately picked up my phone and ordered the next – on Fake Law. I have complete confidence it will be just as witty, informative and kind as this one. I can only hope it won’t be as frightening. I suspect the hope will be in vain.
If I have any gripes with this book it will be only that I am disappointed with the fallacious thinking on page 256 where SB claims that ‘instances of malicious sexual allegations are rare’. They go on to ‘prove’ this by showing there are just twenty prosecutions for false allegations per year and 7,000 complaints of rape. But I have had the honour of working with many (mostly) men who have faced false allegations and I can tell you that the police are 100% reluctant to bring cases against women who lie even when the evidence is clear they have done so, because of the message it might convey about police attitudes to rape. SB even talks on this area just a few pages later when discussing some famous cases of false allegations which took place only because the police felt the pressure to believe everything. So, of course there are so few prosecutions of false accusers. Likewise, although there are thousands of allegations every year and undoubtedly many are completely true, and that is so very wrong that too many genuine cases of rape never make it to court, that does not mean all those cases are true. It is virtually unknowable how many rape complaints that go no further are merely false accusations which didn’t succeed. Again, I know of far too many of these to dismiss false allegations as ‘rare’. They’re happening every day, every week, every month of the year. To claim with certainty that malicious claims are rare then, is not fair.
But this is a gripe which is unfortunate because it is close to my heart and, in all fairness, SB did write this in the context of showing how false allegations are utterly destructive. I have no doubt the author will object strongly to my criticism and I acknowledge that I am especially sensitive to this area. In reality, it is the only criticism I feel I can level at the book because it is otherwise and absolute must-read.
In particular, I very strongly agree with one of the SB’s concluding remarks – that the general public need to be better educated about the law. Almost nothing is taught in schools about the justice system and policing. Students have to study Sociology at A level or Criminology at University level before they will get any kind of general introduction to the one area of everyday life which really can utterly break you – even if you’re not the one facing prosecution. From what I see from the book, it is very, very easy to bring an accusation. It is another thing altogether to prove innocence or bring a case to an end. It can take years either way. It is a miracle that any cases resolve correctly at all.
That they do is all credit to the likes of the author who truly do care about justice and work hard to ensure it for their clients no matter who they are. My view of the legal profession has completely changed thanks to SB. I no longer see the profession as villains. Many of them are heroes.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.