The Secret Barrister

Recommendation: Eye opening and confronting, this is an excellent reminder of the importance of paying attention to the health of public institutions

Read with: A glass of cheap red

Where to read: I read most of this at Bronte beach (in my defence, it was raining) and while I can’t say this is proper beach reading, it did actually distract me from puppy watching

In brief: There are so many bad legal puns to be made here… but I shall resist. Think of this as a guided tour of the shite parts of the English criminal justice system, some (many) of which can be extrapolated to our own system.

At a time when events in the United States should have us all thinking about the treatment of minorities, particularly Indigenous Australians, in our justice system, this is a useful exploration of the dynamics at play in the practicalities and politics of criminal justice.

The starting point is that for most people, particularly those with social and political power, it is very easy not to care about courts because the chances of being personally involved in a proceeding (other than perhaps divorce) are quite slim. In the UK, the justice system at all levels has been on the receiving end of decades of cuts, efficiency dividends and austerity. There are also areas where matters are conducted in a shockingly unprofessional manner (the idea of lay judges in the magistrates’ courts hurts my soul, for instance) which might be tolerable if everything else was well managed but which tends to racism, sexism, classism. arbitrariness and injustice as things currently stand. Much of this is the result of neglect or deliberate underinvestment by politicians and electorates comfortable they will never be subjected to the vicissitudes of the system at its worst.

This also applies to the laws themselves. The “tough on crime” politician campaigning for mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on bail and cutting the budgets of the Magistrates’ Court and Legal Aid is very unlikely to ever feel the consequences of those decisions personally. And of course the “law and order” candidates never campaign for anything that would. No one is out there arguing for an end to section 10s (no conviction recorded) for white kids caught with weed or bankers and lawyers with cocaine, or longer sentences for white collar (colour) crime or tax evasion (unless you were on Centrelink at the time in which case “fuck the poor”).

There is a lot more material explored in The Secret Barrister, some of which may be familiar from debates in Australia (the suggestion, for example, that the defence should have access to a forensic lab as well as the Crown is not a new one) but the point I want to draw out here is that the health of democratic and social institutions matter and are everyone’s business and responsibility. The chances that I (or you) will be denied bail for a minor offence, or die while in police custody, or be jailed for an assault when a middle class white man would have got off with a suspended sentence or be held in offshore detention for a decade are slim to none. But that doesn’t mean I should be allowed to wash my hands of the problem and pretend it does not happen.

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