Interview with the Secret Barrister
Secret Barrister, a UK lawyer, began blogging about his/her views on the criminal justice system in 2015. Quickly gaining a following, his/her first book, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, published by Picador in 2018 shot into the bestseller list, where it has remained ever since.
Regularly taking leading politicians to task on twitter, he/she now has some 250,000 followers.
His/her true identity remains a closely guarded secret. The Crime Hub were lucky enough to get an interview with the Secret Barrister to see what more we could find out about the person behind the pseudonym.
Was there a light bulb moment that caused you to start your blog?
It was actually the brainchild of my partner, who, having suffered through yet another evening of my complaints at the end of a typically frustrating day, politely but firmly suggested that I share my thoughts with the internet instead. It all started from there.
Have there been times when other barristers were talking about The Secret barrister in the robing-room and you wished you could reveal your identity?
I’ve overheard snippets on a handful of occasions, and generally bury my head and wait for the conversation to pass. I have absolutely no desire to reveal my identity. People don’t deserve the enormous sense of deflation and disappointment that would inevitably follow.
Assuming your family knows about your other life as The Secret Barrister, they must find it very hard not to shout it from the rooftops?
Possibly. I think my parents sometimes wish they could tell other family members and friends. My other half, although ever supportive, probably thinks it’s a helpful check on my ego not to receive any public acknowledgment. And they’re right.
Is it hard having so much success as a writer that you can only share with a few people?
I don’t mind it, actually. There’s something nice about it being a closed secret shared only with my nearest and dearest.
Has your anonymity as a blogger and writer given you a sense of freedom in what you felt able to say that perhaps you wouldn’t have had using your real name?
Without a doubt. The primary reason for writing anonymously was that it bought the freedom to speak candidly and independently, in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible under my own name.
I can talk critically about the system and its players without fear of consequences for my practice or my chambers, and, as in the book, illustrate with cases from my real practice while maintaining the anonymity of the people involved. It also removes the unnecessary distraction of my real (wholly uninteresting) identity; my arguments can be addressed on their merits, rather than on any presumed authority, or lack of authority, I may be perceived to hold in real life. All people need to know to engage with what I write is that I am an average criminal barrister.
Has there been a situation recently in your other life where a friend or colleague found out that you were the Secret Barrister? If so, how did they react?
Not yet. We’ve managed so far to avoid any security breaches – the handful of people who know have all kept their counsel (no pun intended).
Do you have any plans to reveal your identity in the future?
No. I recognise that, realistically, the choice may be taken away from me. But as long as it’s within my power, I’d like to remain as I am. Mediocre hack by day, jobbing writer and legal Twitter troll by night.
Your life must be very hectic, running a practice and writing? Do you get time to read books? Are you a fan of crime fiction?
The combination of writing and practice doesn’t leave much time for other pursuits, and sadly reading is something which takes a bit of a knock. Mostly I dip in and out of non-fiction, although a teenagehood steeped in John Grisham means that I always find time for his latest offering.
Your book sets out in stark detail the way the criminal justice system is collapsing. Could more funding for the police, legal aid, the courts, solve the problems, or is it more complicated?
The impact of the cuts – nearly 50 per cent in a decade – has taken a devastating toll on the justice system. There are institutional problems rooted deeper; I don’t pretend that spending money is a panacea. But many of the basic errors we see daily – evidence not gathered, disclosure not completed, legal aid denied to people who need it, trials adjourned repeatedly for years – can be traced directly to there not being enough police officers to investigate alleged offences, or Crown Prosecution Service caseworkers and lawyers juggling too many cases, or the Ministry of Justice refusing to pay for courtrooms to remain open. No aspect of our society can be expected to operate safely on half of a budget which was already critically under resourced.
Your book and blog paint a vivid picture of the modern criminal Bar – people working long hours for miniscule pay and facing huge daily challenges. You’ve done a great deal to change some people’s view of lawyers as rich, champagne quaffing, toffs. Is that something you set out to do?
It’s certainly something I aim for.
I think that historically the legal profession has struggled to communicate to the public what we do and why it matters, with the result that there’s a critical disconnect between the law and the people it serves. There’s a common assumption that all barristers fit the old, posh and wealthy stereotype, and I hope that I’ve brought the reality of the modern Bar home to a few people.
If you could change one thing about the CJS, what would it be?
Just one? I’d eliminate the Innocence Tax.
If you’re accused of a criminal offence, you should be eligible for legal aid. If you’re convicted and you can afford to pay the cost of your representation, then it can be recovered. But if you’re acquitted, you should not be out of pocket by a penny.
The fact that since Chris Grayling’s changes in 2012 innocent people can be bankrupted successfully defending themselves is a stain on our legal system.
You are a patron of The Free Representation Unit. Could you tell us something about FRU and the work they do?
FRU is a charity which provides legal representation in social security and employment tribunals for people who don’t qualify for legal aid and who can’t afford to pay for legal assistance. It is staffed mostly by volunteers and junior lawyers, and offers an invaluable safety net to vulnerable people who are wrongly denied benefit entitlements or are mistreated at work, and who otherwise would be forced to negotiate the complexities of the legal system alone.
Are there plans for another book?
There is a second book due for publication in early 2020. It focuses on the wider justice system, and the myths that the public are fed about how the law works and the dangers that underpin those narratives.