“As with so many of my cases, I had to learn to live without a tidy ending.”
As Sarah Langford demonstrates in this book about being a barrister, the one thing the law courts cannot do is provide tidy endings, let alone happy endings. Nevertheless, the cases she describes are presented in the form of stories, complete in themselves, as though neatly bundled up in pink ribbon. “For behind the clever arguments spun from the pages of a law book there is always a human tale.”
They are beautifully written, but they are not sentimental. The rawness and friction of real life is there, and although the names and some of the details have been changed, they ring true. And they certainly make you think. Some of them may even make you cry – as much in anger and frustration, as in sorrow.
This book is not a polemic. It is not an indictment of the system. It shows the reader how the system works, not the many ways in which it doesn’t, though some of those problems do emerge. But mainly it describes what it feels like to be a barrister, and the kind of feelings a barrister has about the clients they have and the cases they are caught up in.
Langford’s practice has been a mixture of family and crime. There are already quite a lot of books about criminal barristering, so I confess to finding the family cases rather more interesting and unusual. Family cases are not well reported by the media and don’t get the same kind of attention in TV drama, though aspects of family law have had a good airing in, eg, The Archers on the radio.
One of the most affecting cases involves a girl from Bangladesh, referred to as ‘Saba’, who has been imprisoned in an arranged marriage to a man whose violent and controlling behaviour eventually justify the court granting her a residence order for their infant daughter. Saba’s passport has been confiscated by her in-laws, and she’s terrified and awkward giving evidence of intimate matters through an interpreter.
Another young mother, referred to as ‘Maggie’, is the victim of a chaotic upbringing, doomed to continue the cycle of failure. Her first baby was removed into the care system as soon as she was born. The same might happen to her second, a son, but this time, and despite having initially given consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, Maggie is determined to keep the boy. She will do whatever it takes to convince them she can be a good mother.
Yet everything about the process – the huddle of social workers outside court, annoyed that they will have to give evidence in a full court hearing instead of supplying prefabricated reasons for a ten-minute rubber-stamping procedure; the impersonalised language of the psychological reports, in which the baby is treated as a piece of public property; the grumpy impatience of the judge who hasn’t received the local authority’s bundle on time – all of these conspire to alienate the frightened, humiliated young mother in her battle with officialdom. The barrister can represent her case, but only Maggie herself can win it.
Langford has earlier had her misgivings – “I admitted my relief that this tiny innocent would not suffer the experiment of whether her mother could parent or not” – but the bravery of Maggie’s hope wins her over. Moreover, she finds the system itself far from perfect:
“I was troubled by how often a local authority was prepared to spend money on experts to prove a mother couldn’t parent, rather than on helping her learn how to do so…”
Among the clients in her criminal cases are hopeless recidivists whom the system routinely fails, domestic abusers who need mental rather than punitive treatment, wives deemed to be in cahoots with their husband’s lawbreaking and duly charged with conspiracy, and teenage sex offenders barely aware of the enormity of their transgressions.
All of them have their stories. And as she observes at the end of one of the cases (where the real story, both legal and human, only emerges accidentally), they don’t have tidy endings. The wrongs people have suffered are not reversed by punishing the wrongdoer; nor does vindicating a right mean the same as not having had it breached in the first place. Litigation is not about happy endings. It’s generally about compromises that, somehow or other, aim to be better than nothing.
What about Langford herself? “I am not most people’s idea of a stereotypical barrister. I did not go to a top university, nor do I come from a family of lawyers.” Threaded through her case histories are recollections about her own career path, and her observations on the work.
“To be a legitimate voyeur into people’s lives, within a machine both ancient and modern, which tried to represent and uphold the values that underpin the country in which we live – that is an extraordinary privilege.”
The robing room banter of the other barristers makes her feel awkward, an imposter, an outsider looking in. But this distancing also allows her to bring a fresh eye to the scene. “The courtroom seemed cold,” she says at one point, “as though someone had turned on the air conditioning to rid the room of the stifling smell of hours of evidence.”
The book ends with some notes on the law discussed in each chapter, and practical matters such as the often derisory fees earned for such a case, once one has deducted travel and hotel costs, chambers fees and so forth. You begin to realise why the job is not only intellectually demanding but requires a rock-solid vocation.
For students, I would recommend this book as an introduction to the human factors and daily grind of a legal career, an antidote to all that debating hall adrenaline and awards dinner glamour. For non-lawyers it is a window into a world you don’t see very accurately portrayed in the media or on TV, and a corrective to some of the more hysterical popular myths about the ‘secret courts’ of the family justice system.
The book concludes with a tribute to the rule of law, and a warning of what happens if we take it too much for granted. She concludes:
“The law is human justice, designed and enforced. It will therefore always be imperfect. It makes mistakes, it is slow, sometime chaotic, sometimes illogical. It cracks and – at times – crumbles. But it remains a pillar upon which our country is founded. Were it to break, the stability of our nation would break too, and we would be all the poorer for it.”
Featured image: drawing by Isobel Williams (of another barrister, Laura John of @moncktonlaw on her first day in UKSC), reproduced with her permission and our thanks.