Artillery Row

Dinner at Brasenose? Unmasking the Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister’s new book tears apart fake news and the notion of compensation culture

The Secret Barrister (SB) is the toast of the legal profession despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that no one has the slightest clue who he/she/they is/are. If we knew who SB was, SB would be at the top of the guest list for any lawyer’s get-together and towards the top of most folks’ Christmas list (and has already received the Law Society Legal Personality of the Year Award).

It may be the name is secret because SB is a shy boy or girl, or more likely because SB thinks it may interfere with a flourishing legal career. Everyone, however, is reduced to guessing (many think it is The Critic’s very own Joshua Rozenberg).

Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister.
Picador 2020, £13

The smart money however says SB is a northerner (or a collective of Yorkshire folk) but only because it appears that SB sprinkled some northern expressions and was also quite direct in the last book (which may of course be a deliberate distraction mechanism). SB are the initials of Lord Simon Brown who recently wrote a fascinating autobiography, but I doubt it is him.

Whoppers are told every day in the media about legal decisions

So, what of the book? It is titled Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies and considers in-depth how frequently what happens in court is misrepresented in the media (deliberately or otherwise). In particular, the idea that we have a vast compensation culture is torn apart, as is the notion that we spend more on legal aid than any other country and that human rights laws only benefit rapists and murderers. As SB says, “Compensation has been reimagined as the enemy of the people instead of its ally”. This is one of many nice turns of phrase.

Whoppers are told every day in the media about legal decisions in the same way Boris Johnson used to complain about bendy bananas. During my time as a barrister, whenever any of my cases made it into the press I usually detected at least one misinterpreted fact.

Fake Law tears apart the notion of compensation culture

One of the biggest miscarriages of the facts was the notorious McDonald’s coffee case. This is usually portrayed as “compensation culture gone mad”, that is a woman receiving a large award because of a coffee spill. Look a little deeper as SB does: the claimant did not know that the coffee had been heated to between 82 and 88 degrees. She was partially disabled for two years. It also emerged in the trial that McDonald’s knew the temperature at which it served its coffee was hazardous as there had been 700 similar complaints over the previous decades and the company had done nothing to address this. And the company admitted that its coffee as served was not fit for consumption. That gives a bit more perspective than the headlines and is the sort of myth that SB relentlessly exposes.

Nowhere are there more misconceptions about the law than in my area of employment, where the theory encouraged by the newspapers is that there are lots of unmeritorious claims clogging up the system. That is allegedly why employment tribunal fees for such claims were introduced. SB argues persuasively that genuinely hopeless cases can be booted out.

One of the greatest shibboleths is of course human rights, especially the sort of headline found in the Daily Mail that the ECHR had ordered the UK Government to pay £4.4m in “taxpayer funded pay-outs” to “murderers terrorists and traitors” for which it had to apologise. Theresa May did not allow this particular bandwagon to pass her by with the conference speech featuring the Bolivian who allegedly stayed in the UK because he had a pet cat. This was however not at all the basis of the decision, but a throwaway line.

The areas covered by SB include your family, your health, your work, our access to justice, our liberty, equality and due process and democracy. This work does not quite reach the heady pitch of SB’s earlier book “Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken”, which concentrated on the criminal law in which SB apparently practices. There is too much of a rigid template between the chapters setting out media ludicrousness first and then setting out the true position as seen by SB.

The book has some extraordinary material in it such as the fact that a third of the public surveyed did not know the difference between criminal and civil courts. Only two in five have faith in the justice system and this is no doubt partly because there is a good deal of fake news, which this book very clearly contests. SB says the book “offers merely snapshots of how the stories we are told about justice corrupt and warp our understanding”.

One of the problems feeding into this is that few newspapers now have specialist legal correspondents and fewer court cases are actually attended by reporters. The courts could do more to explain their judgments to the general public and there could be more community engagement and education about law for non-lawyers.

So, I would publicly like to invite SB to dinner; please unmask yourself as you are doing a great service.

John Bowers QC is Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford.

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