The Secret Barrister: Stories of How Criminal Courts are the A&E of the Legal World

By Liv Cummins

Having previously studied criminal law at A-level and degree level I thought I had a pretty good understanding of how the criminal law system in England and Wales worked. I was wrong. ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’ is an intelligent, engaging eye-opener with a passionate (yet devastating) analysis of the criminal justice system- something which I imagine few of us think about often.

The Secret Barrister blows the whistle on the inevitable pressures of everyday life as a criminal barrister and uses a health analogy throughout to symbolise the unbearable strain that the UK legal system is under. This clever and relatable metaphor continuously paints a picture illustrating that the criminal courts and the public health service are in urgent crisis. The media has made it clear- from underpaid workers to depleting resources- that the NHS has reached breaking point’… but what about our criminal justice system?

Meet the Secret Barrister…

The anonymous author- referred to as the Secret Barrister (SB)- is a practicing junior criminal barrister in the United Kingdom. He/she elaborates in the first chapter, ‘My Opening Speech’, “I am a junior barrister in a similar way that the term is applied to junior doctors”: severely overworked and despicably underpaid. Like most doctors and barristers, SB states “an early night sees me home at 8pm. A late night is the following morning” typically working 60 to 70 hours per week.

This news is probably unsurprising. TV shows such as ‘Suits’ glamorise the prospect of being a lawyer working tirelessly throughout the night. However, Harvey Specter receives a pay-check with a lot more figures than what a UK criminal barrister does. SB quashes the ‘fat cat’ barristers myth with shocking statistics pinpointing barristers earn less per hour than McDonald’s staff, scraping a measly wage of £10-20k per year. It is engrained in the minds of junior doctors before they qualify that they will be paid in the currency of peanuts. Why is this not common knowledge for aspiring junior barristers too?

Accident and Emergency’

SB refers to the magistrates’ court as the “replica of an inner-city A&E department on a Saturday night”. SB opens the chapter with “at any moment, a problem will walk through the door and the prosecutor will have to deal with it blind”. Going on to describe the chaos of court rooms and case files, it becomes apparent how uncanny SB’s A&E analogy is.

He/she gives a light-hearted approach by describing the magistrates’ court as a “human zoo”. You might ask yourself why SB makes this comparison. Since 2010, 162 magistrates’ court closures across the UK has led to overcrowding in an effort to invest £1 billion to ‘modernise’ our court and tribunal system. Shouldn’t this money should be spent on accommodating the court closures rather than giving them a lick of paint? We have heard the worrying stories about children lying on hospital floors due to lack of beds, but what about victims being denied justice because of overcrowded courts? Nothing.

Would you like some funding with your cuts?

The emotions conveyed through the language used in the chapter ‘Legal Aid Myths and the Innocence Tax’ makes it clear that the SB is frustrated with the significant cuts made in legal aid. SB strolls the reader through the incremental cuts in legal aid in the past decade, from £1.17 billion in 2010, to £975 million in 2012 to £858 million in 2017. Some may be mistaken to believe the cuts were made because crime is decreasing. They are wrong. Knife crime, for example, has risen to a new record with 43,516 offences between 2018-2019.

Legislation mentioned by SB such as the LASPO Act 2012 has led to such extreme cuts in legal aid. SB points out specifically Schedule 7 which abolishes the defendant cost order whereby “private-paying defendants would no longer be able to recoup their costs”. He/she compares this to the private healthcare system: “you are not obliged to use the NHS, but if you snub it for BUPA, you foot the bill”.

This health analogy will have the reader shaking with anguish. We are all rightly outraged about underfunding in the NHS; but this book makes clear why we need to be shouting about underfunding of the CPS, legal aid and the prison system.

To conclude …

‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’ is a warning about how our justice system is at risk of collapse due to lack of awareness and interest: “if the criminal justice system were the NHS, it would never be off the front pages”. Nevertheless, it is also a call of pride as to how the system could be saved by hard-working people- such as the Secret Barrister. This is a story of a legal system financially starved of resources to the extent that it is hard to say whether or not we can in all honestly still call it justice. As SB puts it, “we are moving from a criminal justice system to simply a criminal system”.

SB has created an unstoppable momentum for change; we need more books like this. To thrust into the hands of all influencers. Ironically, it took an anonymous author with a scribbled-out face to show us that maybe some barristers are human after all.