It was obvious the Tory right was planning to up its attacks on the legal profession when, in the nuclear fallout following the 2016 referendum, Paul Dacre, in one of his not un-characteristic spasms of delinquency, shrieked ‘Enemies of the People’ from the front page of his newspaper. With a nod and a wink, Liz Truss – a politician of no discernible talent but who’d nonetheless been appointed Lord Chancellor by the not-much-missed Theresa May – simpered,
“I think it is dangerous for a government minister to say this is an acceptable headline and this isn’t an acceptable headline because [while] I am a huge believer in the independence of the judiciary, I am also a very strong believer in the free press”.
Or in other words: “an independent judiciary . . . yeah, whatever; the free press, the Tory press, our press – you bet.” May’s successor Boris Johnson, with his prorogation of Parliament, threats to breach international law, and party conference gibes about lawyers, has gone even further in undermining not only the independence of the judiciary but the constitution itself.
Fortunately, with this swiftly paced and highly readable book, the Secret Barrister is back, and primed to subject these flyblown politicians and their gibbering cheerleaders to forensic cross-examination. For those of us unschooled in the often arcane world of the legal profession – which, as SB points out, is “often unnecessarily complex and alienating to a non-legal audience” – our anonymous guide is on hand methodically and deftly to explain all the whys and wherefores, the who’s who and the what’s what. Fake Law, The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies is elegantly written, laconic and sardonic, passionate and compassionate, and as compelling and entertaining as it is informative and learned – a thriller doubling as a vade-mecum.
It does, however, get off to a perfectly horrible start. “Fifty-two years, three months and eleven days, after capital punishment in Great Britain was abolished”, the Introduction begins, “the state ordered that a baby be put to death”. You flip to endnote ¹, and alarm quickly turns to dismay as . . . there he is, first up, the unflushable Nigel Farage, once again casting his urinary beam on a subject – this time, the pitiable case of Alfie Evans – about which he knows nothing and cares less. With a shrug, the SB seems to be saying, Well, don’t blame me, you bought the book – read the cover: it’s about fake law (and fake news) and lies (and liars) – and here’s exhibit one.
Bellyaching to his chums at Fox News about “‘the establishment closing ranks’, ‘our state-run medical system’ and ‘state-sponsored euthanasia'”, blah blah, Farage, the SB contends, is “happy to misrepresent the cases [not only of Alfie Evans but Charlie Gard, too] as the unhappy products of our approach to healthcare”. In other words: undermine, exploit, break up, cash in. Sounds vaguely familiar. Quoting Farage from 2012, the SB continues, “he would ‘feel more comfortable’, if UK healthcare was opened up to the ‘marketplace'”. Who knew? Our very own carpetbagger-in-chief is not, of course, the only one of the “engineers of the outrage machine and peddlers of Fake Law” whom we encounter with depressing regularity in Fake Law. But he is certainly the busiest of the “swarm of salivating vultures” looking to clean up, notwithstanding the misfortune of others. Money, follow the money . . .
Because money – or, as it impacts on the SB’s profession, the lack thereof – is a recurring theme in Fake Law. Ditto the SB’s Twitter threads, one of which needs to be included here, if only to underline the current prime minister’s complete and utter moral and political bankruptcy:
Johnson doesn’t care about victims of sexual violence. Or victims of any crime. Or people accused of crime. Or witnesses. Or the public whose safety depends on functioning criminal justice. His only interest is getting cheap headlines.
He, and governments before him, have slashed criminal justice to the bone. He now openly lies to the public to deflect from this.
In one of the book’s most scathing passages, the SB explains how, as a result of the 40% cut to the Ministry of Justice’s budget between 2010 and 2020, “the people who need legal aid to enforce their rights are being consciously and deliberately cut adrift [with] lives ruined as a result”. They include the most vulnerable: those denied the compensation needed to rebuild their lives after becoming victims of serious crime, those screwed by not only unscrupulous employers but by dodgy landlords, the “obnoxious” DWP and incompetent private contractors. As a result of almost wilfully malevolent penny-pinching, all are abandoned.
“If, heaven forbid”, the passage concludes, “you lose your husband or wife or child in a terrible accident and there is an inquest, the state will pay for lawyers to represent its police officers or its officials. But not for the bereaved families. You’re on your own”. And that, of course, might be any of us. Which is all the more reason we should read this important book. Its purpose, in an age of lies, is to expose the fakery, incontinent stupidity and outright cruelty that its author – a practising criminal barrister – seems quotidianly to encounter. And if the barely contained derision punctuating its 300-odd pages is aimed squarely at both this decade-long Tory administration and its friends in the media, it is for the very simple reason that the latter has for the last ten ruinous years ceaselessly and slavishly and raucously cheerled the former.
The SB calls their book “a polemic not a gospel”, and it’s an often incredulous and righteously angry one. But anger is always tempered with mordant humour, never more so than when they get stuck into the self-appointed moral majoritarians who, day in, day out, disseminate so much misinformation with such gleeful impunity. Step forward Tony Parsons, although you could take your pick from any one of Ross Clark, Andrew Pierce, Allison Pearson and, with multiple entries, Littlejohn of the Sun. Not forgetting, of course, the clown car of stupid himself, Chris Grayling, MP. They’re all here. Chris Grayling is here a lot.
In a subsection entitled ‘What have human rights ever done for us?’, the SB writes,
“What a straightforward world Tony Parsons and his columnist bedfellows inhabit, where all justice requires is to draw a dividing line between goodies and baddies, and for the goodies to have untrammelled power to make miserable the lives of the baddies. Hang ’em, torture ’em, separate ’em from their children and kick ’em out. Simples . . . Justice is vengeance. Nothing more, nothing less”.
All good, knockabout fun but the SB’s point is deadly serious. Highlighting cases of vulnerable women variously abused, made homeless and threatened with deportation, only then to be denied legal aid, the SB, with barely contained fury, writes – and it’s perhaps the key passage in Fake Law and so should be quoted in full:
“These stories are far from unusual. They occur with a tragic frequency that gives the lie to the narrative fashioned about legal aid in the headlines. For that – a lie – is what it is. You – we – have been lied to for years. And we are still being lied to today. We are lied to about who and what legal aid is for, why we have it and how much it costs. And the consequences of the lies, and what they permit those in power to get away with, threaten to undermine the entire basis of our justice system”.
That last sentence is chilling. When a serving home secretary, yahoo-ed on by her prime minister, can so debauch her office by aligning ‘do-gooders’, ‘lefty-lawyers’ (and the Labour party – obviously) with [human] ‘traffickers’, as Priti Patel did so perniciously in her recent conference speech, and when the excruciating infantilism of a certain sophomaniacal SPAD (mis)quoting Bob Dylan can become not only news but policy … it’s a pretty safe bet we’re in the badlands. It’s heartening, then, to have a book as informative, as truthful and as gripping as Fake Law. In this year from hell, it offers some much needed sanity and no little comfort. A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall; maybe it will and when it does, with luck it’ll wash away this Age of Lies and Liars.
Until then: Gimme Me Some Truth.
Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies, by the Secret Barrister (Picador, £20)
Andrew Woodall has worked as an actor in theatre, film & TV for thirty five years. His only previous experience of legal proceedings was attending a session at the Old Bailey trial of Andy Coulson as part of research for a play, Richard Bean’s Great Britain, which was about the phonehacking scandal.