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CBA Monday Message 25.06.18

Special Edition:
The Secret Barrister

This week’s message is an interview with the Secret Barrister – who has done so much to publicise the importance of the Criminal Justice system and it’s present state.

Who is your legal hero/heroine?
I am conscious that it’s a fairly unexciting and conformist response – the legal equivalent of saying that you think Adele is a lovely singer or that chocolate hobnobs are clearly the best biscuit – but I find it hard to look past Lady Hale. Even putting to one side for a moment the magnitude of her professional achievements and the context in which they were made, there is a quality to her judgments, and to her judgment, which to my mind mark Lady Hale out as everything that a modern judge should be.

What should the CBA be doing in the next 12 months?
I have no special insight on this beyond that of any other CBA member, but I would hope to see the CBA continuing to press the case for widespread investment and improvement on the criminal justice system across the board. Irrespective of the outcome of the ballot, members were assured that this is the beginning, not the end, of the fight, and I expect to see that promise fulfilled. AGFS are still far from satisfactory, prosecution fees are even worse and court and CPS administration, staffing and infrastructure problems will not be solved by the MoJ’s touching faith in digitization. The CBA needs to continue to be the terrier snapping at the MoJ’s heels, and ensuring that if significant changes aren’t guaranteed at the next spending review, we use our strength to force the government’s hand.

What can individual members of the Bar do to encourage public understanding of the CJS?
I’m loath to dictate that any member of the criminal Bar spend any more unpaid time away from their families, but doing what we can to spread the message of the CJS’ problems and to bust popular myths – whether by tweeting, blogging, writing letters to the editor or just being *that* person at a party – is key. My experience with the blog and book suggests that there exists a genuine public appetite for information about the state of criminal justice; people simply don’t know where to get it. Each person who learns that we are not £1,000-an-hour fat cats and that the system is on its knees is one more person to spread the gospel among their other non-lawyer friends.

How can we improve diversity at the Bar?
I’m not sure I can offer a comprehensive prescription in a soundbyte, but pay and conditions are the obvious hurdles to progressing the careers of any young criminal practitioner who wants a functioning family life and who is not independently wealthy.

Why do the courts send so many defendants to prison? 
Sentencing Guidelines appear to have had a slight inflationary effect, but from my reading of the figures the increase in average sentence length appears to coincide with the increase in the number of trials and convictions for sexual offences. So I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to attribute the problem to the judiciary. My amateur thesis, for what it’s worth, is that we have a cultural problem with how we conceptualise justice and punishment, which fetishes prison as a norm rather than an exception, and creates unrealistic expectations of what prison can achieve. As I write this, a homeless man with mental health problems has just been imprisoned by magistrates for 13 weeks for fraud after admitting picking up a dropped runner’s number at the London Marathon and running across the finish line to “win” a medal. With the obvious caveat that the full facts are not known, this on its face appears a shining example of the problem.

Which legislative change has made the most difference during your time at the bar? 
LASPO. Not necessarily for the direct impact it has upon my criminal practice, but for its wider effect on access to justice and legal aid.

Where do you see the Bar in 10 years time?
Hopefully still here, but who knows? I think the next two or three years will be determinative of whether the criminal Bar survives in its current form, or whether it morphs into a fused profession or a tiny specialized Bar as suggested in the Jeffrey Review.

Will you ever publicly reveal your identity?
Not through choice. The risk of me inadvertently tweeting a photograph of my gurning face from the Twitter account is always live, but anonymity affords me the freedom to write and practise in a way that I just can’t see being possible if my identity were known. It would only lead to widespread disappointment in any case, as the Bar collectively shrugged its shoulders and asked, “Sorry, who?”

Do you take sandwiches to court? 
I do not, for the simple reason that it is unlikely I would find the time to eat them.

Do you have a pension?
A what?

Have you ever had a day during a trial off sick?
Never. I have had juries sent out while I run out of court to be sick, but have always insisted, in the finest traditions of the Bar, on bringing my viruses into work to share with my colleagues.

What piece of advice would give to a younger you?
“Don’t be afraid to say no.” There is an inordinate, historically-weighted burden of expectation that criminal barristers acquiesce to every demand made of us, no matter how unreasonable or how inimical to our family lives or wellbeing. The job is difficult enough to do well as it is; when we are expected to compensate for the government’s refusal to fund the system by spending our evenings and lunch breaks doing other people’s jobs at the behest of whip-cracking judges, it is simply too much. We pride ourselves on going the extra mile for our clients, and rightly so, but there are limits. The older I get, the less afraid I am to say no, and I find myself (marginally) less stressed for it.

I would also tell my younger self everything in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Sunscreen Song”.

What are your three top songs of all time?
Three is not enough. But let’s start with “A Little Respect” by Erasure, “River” by Joni Mitchell and (my courtroom entrance song of choice) “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

What other bloggers do you admire?
Too many to list without inadvertent omissions, but in criminal law Matthew Scott and Jaime Hamilton were blogging brilliantly for years before I started riding on their coat tails. My Mid Life Crisis by the anonymous @crimbarrister is one of my very favourites. Outside criminal law, David Allen Green has stood atop the legal blogging mountain for over a decade.

How long did it take to write your book?
All in, the best part of a year. The first six to pour my thoughts onto paper. The second six for the editors and lawyers to politely ask me to remove half of it.

Does your mum know you are SB? 
She does. She has promised not to tell anyone. Time will tell.

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