The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it is Broken (Macmillan, 2018) is a rather depressing account of the failings of our criminal justice system. The author commends the integrity, hard work and dedication of most of the people who work in it, but there are few aspects of the way it works today that escape criticism. The press is targeted for frequently ridiculing and misrepresenting the courts over the decisions they make, politicians are targeted for starving the system of the funds it needs to operate well, and the rest of us are targeted for our complacency. The picture painted is of a system unable to deliver justice effectively and fairly.
The law and its implementation in the courts are a complete mystery to most people, and one of the Secret Barrister’s appeals is for us to be better informed about it. The quip that the professions are a conspiracy against the laity seems to be particularly pertinent to the legal profession. A fair and trusted system of criminal justice is essential to any healthy society, and that is what, according to the Secret Barrister, is coming increasingly under threat. A just society, she (he?) rightly says, is the responsibility of us all.
With the best will in the world, perfect justice, where the guilty are always convicted and sentenced, fairly and appropriately, and the innocent never are, is unachievable. For a start, guilt and innocence are sophisticated and subjective ideas, and impossible to define adequately in any legal system. There are inevitably flaws and biases in how laws are worded, how trials are conducted and how verdicts are arrived at. Even the wisest magistrate or judge cannot hope to always pass a fair and appropriate sentence on a person found guilty, especially as the options available are limited. And there is a whole array of other complex issues that should be addressed in the pursuit of justice, such as the rights of victims, the rights of those convicted, the need for the rehabilitation and the role of deterrence.
The Secret Barrister rightly urges us all to take the pursuit of justice in our society more seriously than we do. His book is, in part, an effort to inform us about such things as how the court system works, how magistrates are appointed, the availability of Legal Aid and the impact of imprisonment, and also a plea for us to act if we discover something we think is seriously wrong.
Vitally important though this is, there are also more profound questions to consider. How can we know what real justice is? Is there such a thing at all? Perhaps a country’s legal system is no more than a matter of it seeking its own self-interest. Which leads to another important question: should the pursuit of justice be limited to the boundaries of a particular State, or should it be a global endeavour? Our current system of law-making and law enforcement inplies the former, but surely there can be no real justice unless it applies to the whole of humanity, not just one part of it.
If genuine justice is always beyond our reach, then there is no redress for those wrongly convicted; no bringing to account the guilty who have avoided conviction; no resolution of all the other injustices suffered by people, past and present. There is something profoundly unacceptable about such an absence of moral order to our existence. We pursue justice because we believe in it. We believe that good should be affirmed and wrong righted. If this belief is no more than wishful thinking, and we are living our lives in a moral vacuum, making things up as we go along, it is rather a miserable condition to be in. Fortunately, the existence of a God of justice means that our own pursuit of justice is not a sham and that our efforts are not made in an empty void.
Peter Shepherd (June 2018)
Peter Shepherd (May 2018)