03:06, July 15 72 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-15 03:06:05
In Your Defence by Sarah Langford – review

This is no typical legal memoir. Against the backdrop of a justice system in crisis, Sarah Langford guides readers through 11 cases demonstrating the workings and failings of the underfunded, overburdened criminal and family courts, laying bare the impact of successive funding cuts that undermine justice for victims and defendants and severely reduce access to the family courts for those without means.

Inevitable comparison will be made with the Secret Barrister’s exposé of the crumbling justice system, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but here the human tales of “heartache and humour, of high drama and quiet pain” take centre stage.

We encounter Dominic, whose criminal career progresses from youth to magistrates’ and inevitably to crown court; Derek, charged with sexual activity in a public lavatory and facing the unbearable prospect of his homosexuality being revealed in court; and Rita, dragged down by an anachronistic law that does not separate a wife’s will from her husband’s.

The usually closed doors of the family court are flung open, revealing a system swamped by unrepresented litigants and crippled by delay. We meet Saba, a young Bangladeshi woman whose violent and controlling husband seeks custody of their daughter; Maggie, the 22-year-old mother at risk of having her second child removed; and Jude caught in the crosshairs of his parents’ broken relationship.

Didactic, but with a lightness of touch, Langford seamlessly weaves exposition of the law’s process and procedure and the everyday rituals and routines of barristers with the gripping storylines of her clients. As a former barrister, the picture she paints of an imperfect system is all too recognisable.

From the outset Langford busts common myths and stereotypes. First, that the bar is a profession of public-school, Oxbridge-educated, well-connected men. Langford is a woman who studied English at the University of the West of England and did not come from a family of lawyers.

Initially feeling that law was “well beyond my reach”, she girded her loins and gave it a shot, working as a legal secretary, a barmaid and solicitors’ note-taker before getting a bank loan to pay for the law conversion course and winning a scholarship to fund bar school.

During pupillage – the 12-month apprenticeship undertaken before gaining a permanent place in chambers – Langford found to her relief that “normal people did this job too”. Notions from TV legal dramas of a profession oozing glamour and daily oratory brilliance are dispelled – replaced with the reality of 5am starts, trains to dismal  towns, vending-machine lunches in windowless rooms, drinking burning tea from white polystyrene cups, and interminable waiting.

Langford’s account of “ever-decreasing rates of publicly funded pay”, where she gets £125 for a two-day trial and when the cost of getting to court is often the same as her fee, shows us that not all courtroom lawyers are fat cats.

Frequently finding herself holding her breath before a jury’s verdict or judge’s ruling, Langford portrays eloquently the emotions of anxiety, doubt and elation that suffuse daily life for most barristers, however much some try to mask it with bluff and bravado. She questions her role in a system that can leave her feeling impotent and complicit in its failure – a “hired mouthpiece”, a “legitimate voyeur” or, as often seems the case in family matters, “an agent and instrument not of the law but of revenge and spite”.

In the closing pages Langford warns that further erosion of the legal system threatens our nation’s stability. It is a compelling read for anyone who cares about fairness, justice and humanity and should be on the reading list of all politicians and policy-makers.

Catherine Baksi is a barrister and author of Legal Hackette’s Brief

In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law by Sarah Langford is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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