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How to fix our broken justice system

In a world of superficial identity politics, Alexandra Wilson’s book offers a nuanced narrative

The book’s cover promises “a young barrister’s story of race and class in a broken justice system.” This may capture the zeitgeist of recent events and social media headlines, but it doesn’t quite capture what this book is actually about.

Like social media filming that invites a trolled population to be judge, jury and executioner, the book’s title invites us to expect a “lawyer turned race warrior” narrative. You will be disappointed, and thankfully so. In a world of superficial identity politics, we need to hear more complex narratives. The author describes her situation as really the story of a Millennial suffering from imposter syndrome. This sense of insecurity is rooted in gender, her origins being Essex and her race being mixed.

Traditions may be a good part of evolutionary change, but they can also maintain barriers

In Alexandra Wilson’s story we read of a young woman striving in a complex and imperfect system steeped in tradition. Indeed if Charles Dickens, who wrote some of the best characterisations of lawyers, were to stroll into a modern court he would still recognise the procedures, language and style of dress. Barristers are like actors, they play a role. Like actors, away from the glare of the judge many can be shy and socially inept, while others are bon vivants. There is a stage (court), a shared language (law) and audience (jury, media and a public gallery). This gives confidence to members of the profession, but they also inhabit a world that has long had a reputation for aloofness. It is a profession that inspires fear, and is maintained by starker demarcation disputes than any trade union closed shop.

Alexandra Wilson, In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System (Endeavour, £16.99)

Wilson starts by explaining her decision to seek entry into this seemingly closed world. The catalyst for her interest in the Bar was the gangland knife death of a cousin at the hands of two boys who mistook his identity. Wilson is proud of her Essex non-traditional background. Her mother is White British and her father Black British, and her paternal Jamaican-born grandparents were part of the Windrush generation. Despite feeling “discouraged from applying to Oxbridge by teachers who thought that it wasn’t for ‘people like me’,” she persevered and gained a place via the Oxford access programme.

Wilson recounts how her peers at Oxford mocked her accent, explaining “in my year group (of over 100 students) I was the only one of black heritage; and none came from Essex.” She does not specifically discuss her economic situation growing up, but the Essex accent seems to be enough for some people to draw all sorts of class assumptions. Despite thinking “I’m not posh,” with the aid of prestigious scholarships she found her way to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple and a one-year pupillage.

Barristers from non-traditional backgrounds are a significant driver towards improving access to justice

The bulk of the book is personal stories topically arranged, including gender, race and the vulnerable in the court system. She explores her discomfort at defending someone whom she suspected was guilty, and as it turned out they were. She also tells the story of a woman judge who shouted at her and made her feel humiliated. Mostly they are stories about her clients and cases, some of whom lied to her, but many who were grateful to her. The most bizarre was a South Londoner who inexplicably put on a Scottish accent from the moment he met her right through to the judgement delivered, and only then cheekily revealed his true accent upon taking his leave of her at the court. Wilson clearly loves her chosen profession and believes she can help her clients.

If one were to summarise the race and gender aspect of the book it amounts to “things were bad but are getting better.” This is not to say there are no flashes of anger, because these are laced throughout the narrative. Some stories relate instances of direct racism and microaggressions. She discusses how it feels to defend someone who hates the colour of her skin or chooses her precisely for this reason. She finds child, youth and family cases of particular distress. In support of the race, class and broken justice system thesis promised in the book title, she offers a handful of footnoted statistics, official statements and suggested readings rather than any sustained argument.

The legal system and the Bar are changing, and it is commonplace in legal circles today to talk about “disruption,” a term describing the business and technological change currently taking place in the legal profession. Law firms are creating new business models, while technology is transforming legal practice from case management through to Artificial Intelligence use and the development of online courts. Millennials like Wilson are part of this shift, and the slow evolutionary change is becoming increasingly revolutionary. Disruption is not just a technical issue, it strikes at the heart of how we improve access to justice.

Most of the disruption is happening in the law firms, amongst solicitors, and in the commercial areas of law; in other words, where the money is. The criminal bar is the broken part and in need of more radical change. The effect of Covid-19 has exacerbated the problems of underpaid defence barristers, and the administrative dysfunction of the court system whereby cases can drag on like Dickens’ Chancery case Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Or worse, like a cricket match where rain stops play and the case is abandoned. Covid-19 has also highlighted the pros and cons of remote courts, and may speed the development toward online courts. Meanwhile the costs escalate and people remain in limbo or lost in the legal system.

Changing the profession, to behave less like entitled masters, can only help the people whom barristers  serve

Access to justice means the criminal bar needs its own disruption. Traditions may be a good part of evolutionary change, but they can also maintain barriers. Professionals in the legal system often behave as if the law is only for lawyers, but it is for all of us. This is a realization that is dawning on the profession, and there is increased attention to how lawyers communicate more openly and inclusively. These barriers are being broken down, and having barristers like Wilson from non-traditional backgrounds is a significant driver towards improving access to justice. This is the core message in the book, best illustrated by one of her stories. Wilson relates how “a senior, male, white barrister took pride” in telling her how knife crime in black communities was generating business, but this was going to black barristers. She concluded this reinforced the need for people like her in the profession.

The important lesson is Wilson’s realization that instead of being an imposter, her non-traditional background means she is closer to her clients. She explains, “as I was struggling to come to grips with the subtle and professional codes of chambers, I began to appreciate that many people who come into contact with the justice system hadn’t learned about or didn’t understand the laws that govern them.” Changing the profession, to behave less like entitled masters, can only help the people whom barristers and the law serve, which includes those citizens who topple statues and destroy communities to impose identity.

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