Book Review: The Secret Barrister, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken

The Secret Barrister

When I was younger I fancied the idea of being a Barrister, but the closest I came was being a Barista to earn pocket money as a student. Law is fascinating though.

Why the secret?

The Secret Barrister maintains his anonymity to highlight injustices within the criminal prosecution system without fear of reprisal. Certainly no coward, the man has huge responsibilities on his shoulders.

For example, prosecuting a perpetrator of grievous domestic violence with limited evidence because the victim’s statement goes missing. Or defending a young offender whose life has clearly been a series of failings by those responsible for his care, and like so many others in his shoes, starts a life of crime, in and out of prison.

It could be you

These and more injustices within the system are highlighted, owing to budget cuts. He witnessed miscarriages of justice owing to cuts in Legal Aid too. He poses what ifs along the lines of, you’re in a pub and a drunk man swings for you. You get a punch in first and he goes down, fracturing his jaw on the landing.

You are then charged with inflicting grievous bloody harm with a potential prison sentence of up to five years. The Secret Barrister says cuts to legal aid rates for public funded defence solicitors makes it near-impossible for many solicitors to remain financially viable, which is worrying, if you’re facing an accusation like this. 


Clearly well educated, this barrister’s writing is a delight. He embellishes his sentences with lovely adjectives, or try this juicy sentence: 

“Judge Kerrigan is bored by the pedestrian advocacy of a twenty-something upstart apparently channelling an unholy trinity of the Jeremies Paxman, Clarkson and Kyle as they superciliously showboat their intellectual advantage over the bewildered Mr Tuttle.”

Beautifully written with linguistic aplomb, while equally highlighting how outwitting your opponent, with the benefit of a superior (read expensive) education, can lead to the prosecution or acquittal of the scruff who’s accused. Incidentally, Jeremy Kyle has since been taken off screen for being exploitative.

Care leavers and the prison system

My own research in the ‘Prisoners’ childhood and family background’ report by The Ministry of Justice, indicates 24% of prisoners had grown up in care. On page 1 “Many prisoners have a history of social exclusion, being more likely than the general population to have grown up in care, poverty, and to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence.” 

So by accident of birth, you could be more likely to end up in prison and unlikely to defend yourself as a barrister can. That is why legal aid is so important, to give the Jeremy Kyle’s of this world a fighting chance.

Legal aid cuts

The Secret Barrister delves into the figures around legal aid, and the damaging public perceptions such as: “fat-cat solicitors and swaggering ruddy-nosed barristers are gorging on taxpayer cream, cackling as they speed from court in their open top BMWs to quaff legally aided Dom Perignon 1966 after a half-day pulling the wool over a jury’s eyes in the service of some child rapist.”

The essence of legal aid is to help convict the guilty and defend the innocent. The figures he gives as examples reveal that while the UKs justice system is one of the most expensive, it is because it’s good at delivering justice, citing The Birmingham Six and The Guildford Four, which were only overturned and innocents set free, by the grace of legal aid.

Nitty gritty with the figures

His figures are worth scrutinising in detail, not my strong suit, although it would appear that being a magistrate or barrister isn’t as lucrative as people think. I get the feeling that The Secret Barrister isn’t in it for the money though, from his clear frustration with what he sees wrong within the MoJ. The end of chapter 7 highlights that in 2014, a 1p tax increase on a pint would have covered the nation’s legal aid bill, for example. Seems like a no brainer to me, but people aren’t elected on MoJ policies apparently, unless it’s about making justice cheaper. 

Perhaps more shocking is “The Innocence Tax” whereby you could be charged with a crime you didn’t commit, and need to spend a six figure sum for specialist defence counsel, be acquitted of the accused crime, and *still* have to foot the bill of legal fees. Genuinely terrifying. You could represent yourself ofcourse, and an increasing number of people are, as noted in this book, but your chances of winning without proper legal representation are slim to none. 

Sexual assault convictions

The Secret Barrister cites three examples of sexual assault crime. One is about a female fantasist who invents rape stories and nearly has an innocent man sent down. The second is about two teenager girls who claimed sexual assault by their Dad, who the secret barrister was defending. Even though he felt in his bones, and undisclosed evidence suggested that the girls were telling the truth, his intelligent and capable defence helped this man to walk away a free man. 

The third example of sexual assault is a man who is sentenced to 7 years for attempted rape, but pleads not guilty, then by quirk of the law, because he proclaims his innocence, ends up spending 17 years inside before DNA evidence has him finally acquitted.

Rape convictions are very low in the UK and women are reluctant to come forwards to report rape because they’re often not believed. Having read these three examples, you can see why.

Closing speech

Still, having read this book, I do agree with the legal precedent – “It is better that ten guilty people go free than one innocent person suffer conviction.” Especially given the case study at the end shares my brother’s name.

There but for the Grace of God go any of us.

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From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow.

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