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The Secret Barrister

Since 2015, a barrister practising criminal law in the UK started blogging and tweeting under the pseudonym ‘The Secret Barrister’. The aim was to shine a light on the inadequacies, and indeed failings, of the criminal justice system.

This culminated in 2018 with the publication of Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, which became a surprisingly mainstream success, remaining in the Sunday Times Top 10 bestsellers list for twenty four weeks, selling over 165,000 copies across all formats.

The content would surprise many readers outside of the UK, which is frequently held up as a shining example of justice but has suffered from many years of neglect and underinvestment. The real strength of the book is showing how access to justice in the UK has become more and more removed from the most vulnerable in society. In an exclusive conversation, The Secret Barrister outlines to The Legal 500’s Publishing Director David Burgess, why the book was written and what impact is has had.

David Burgess: For those lawyers around the world who don’t know much about you, explain why you launched ‘The Secret Barrister’ persona on Twitter.

The Secret Barrister: The Twitter account and blog were actually the brainchild of my partner, who, having patiently sat through yet another evening of my post-work spleen-venting, suggested that I start a Twitter account and companion blog to share my experiences with the wider public (or, to quote them directly, with “anyone but me”). Something that has astonished me since starting in criminal practice is how little public awareness there is of the serious failings that we see in the courts every day. When I first started, I hoped that I might be able to attract a few followers and shine a little light on the reality of criminal justice. Things rather spiralled from there.

DB: For those who have yet to read your best-selling book, what should be the takeaway message from Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken?

SB: Our criminal justice system is broken, and we, as a society, need to start caring before it is beyond repair. Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice has been cut more severely than
any other department. Every aspect of the criminal process – policing, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, legal aid, prisons, probation – is falling to pieces, ultimately for want
of resources, yet so few people outside our legal bubble are aware of it. I want the public to know, and to press for change, before it’s too late.

DB: Politicians often describe the UK as having a Rolls-Royce justice system. How true is that when compared with other jurisdictions and how much worse can it get for those seeking justice in the UK?

SB: For multi-billionaires and corporations litigating in the commercial courts, there may be something akin to a Rolls Royce system, or at least a very nice
Volvo. Criminal justice is more of a Robin Reliant on bricks which has been stripped for parts. Historically we have prided ourselves and marketed legal services on the international reputation of our justice system, but I think you would struggle to find anybody working in publicly-funded law who believes our system is currently working as it should. The legal aid cuts heralded
by LASPO removed access to justice for swathes of the population, and the effects have been catastrophic. The fact that the MoJ’s budget is still being reduced year-on-year to 2020 means that I fear the problems are only going to get worse before they get better.

DB: A copy of the book was sent to every member of parliament, but in reality, do you think it will make a difference? The justice ministry has suffered the biggest cuts of any government department, and this doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. Do you fear that the system you have described in your book will simply get worse?

SB: I don’t expect that the book will cause the Treasury to immediately atone and reverse the cuts to the justice system, but I do hope that it has coincided with a growing awareness of the problems within the justice system. The concerns of the legal profession, particularly over legal aid, are getting an airing in the media that would have been unlikely five years ago, and I remain (perhaps naively) optimistic that we are making incremental gains towards winning the argument for a properly-funded justice system. As I said above, things may well get worse before they get better, but I feel more hopeful than I did in 2013.

DB: When it comes to legal aid and the fair remuneration for both barristers and solicitors, what must the legal professions do to keep up the pressure on the government?

SB: This is a question probably better aimed at those in leadership positions with the strategic nous that I don’t pretend to have. My observation as an amateur outsider would be twofold.

Firstly, unity between the Bar and solicitors is essential. Every successful attempt by the government to head off resistance to legal aid cuts has relied on dividing and conquering, and we all seem to fall into this trap time and time again. Secondly, we should not be afraid to use our power to force the government’s hand. There is a reason why tube drivers earn over three times as much as junior criminal barristers. And it’s not, with respect, because their public service is three times as important.

DB: What advice would you give to lawyers in other countries who, seeing how you’ve been able to highlight critical justice issues in the UK, might attempt to replicate your success abroad with their own anonymous lawyer persona?

SB: I think I’ve been the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck, so I’m not sure how well-placed I am to offer advice on replicating what has happened. But quite a lot of the positive feedback I’ve had is from non-lawyers who are grateful for having the legal system explained in layman’s terms, which is something I think we as professionals often struggle with. I think that’s key.

DB: Last year, The Bar Council and The Times asked if you should be unmasked. The common feeling was this was another example of an out of touch ‘establishment’ focusing on the whistleblowing rather than on the root of the problem. How disappointed were you with this survey question?

SB: I have to accept that adopting a name with ‘Secret’ in it is an invitation to ask the question, but I had also hoped that I had done enough to demonstrate that my identity adds absolutely nothing to the substance of what I write. I think something like 95% of respondents said that they would not wish for my identity to be made known, so hopefully that will settle the question for now.

DB: Do you think your career at the Bar would suffer if people knew who you really are?

SB: I don’t know. There is obviously a risk; hence the need for anonymity. I hope that people understand why I write what I write, and see some value in what I do. But I also recognise that few whistleblowers escape intact.

DB: On the subject of legal training, what if anything do you think law schools could do better to prepare their students for legal practice? Do you think the current training regime represents value for money?

SB: I’m over a decade out of Bar school so can’t comment with authority on the current training regime.

What I would say, however, is that my BVC certainly didn’t feel like value for money given the contact hours. Whether that is an issue today, I don’t know.

DB: What advice would you give to lawyers in other countries who, seeing how you’ve been able to highlight critical justice issues in the UK, might attempt to replicate your success abroad with their own anonymous lawyer persona?

SB: I think I’ve been the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck, so I’m not sure how well-placed I am to offer advice on replicating what has happened. But quite a lot of the positive feedback I’ve had is from non-lawyers who are grateful for having the legal system explained in layman’s terms, which is something I think we as professionals often struggle with. I think that’s key.

DB: What predictions would you make about the future of the Bar and the chambers structure?

SB: None with any certainty.

DB: What about the clerks’
room – can you see it remaining an integral part of the chambers environment or will barristers
take more control of their
own BD and administrative
tasks?

SB: I certainly couldn’t cope
without my clerks, and I know few colleagues in crime who have the time or organisational skills to manage the administrative side of practice. Whatever models chambers adopt in the coming years, I believe a clerks’ room will remain integral.

DB: Do you think a fusion
of the barrister and solicitor professions is now more
likely than in previous years?

SB: In crime, I think it probably is, at least partially. Unless there is an unlikely injection of funds into
criminal legal aid, the criminal
Bar will become increasingly
unviable for young graduates.
I could see us ultimately gravitating towards a model as suggested in
the Jeffrey Review, where the
majority of advocates are employed
in-house, with a small, specialist criminal Bar existing for private
payers and the most complex
trials. I don’t endorse that approach,
but I can see it coming to pass.

DB: What’s next? Is there another book planned?

SB: There is a second book
due for publication in 2020,
looking at how the myths
we are fed about the law
enable those in power
to chip away at our rights.

For further information on
The Secret Barrister, visit
the website and blog https://thesecretbarrister.com/ and
follow on Twitter @BarristerSecret
Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken is available to buy via your usual online stores.

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