26 / 08 / 20
By Ruairidh Gilchrist
With the coronavirus pandemic closing down criminal courts throughout the country for the foreseeable future, students are seeking alternative ways to discover more about the justice system throughout the summer. In this blog I will share with you my favourite five criminal law memoirs and novels highlighting what a career is truly like “Under the Wig” of a criminal lawyer, the various cases they take on in their career and the courtroom drama they face every day. From fictional novels of courtroom prejudice to recounts of infamous murder trials – there is something for every student in this list.
While you may at first think a fictional American childhood book is an unusual start to this list, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is now more relevant than ever. A story of compassion, prejudice and injustice; Harper Lee tells the story of Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of the crime of rape in 1930s Alabama. Tom Robinson’s attorney, Atticus Finch, acts as a role model of what a defence lawyer should aspire to be – teaching the reader the dangers of stereotyping and prejudice in the criminal justice system. In a time when the civil rights movement continues to struggle for black justice, To Kill a Mockingbird reminds the reader of the necessity of civil rights and why we need more people like Atticus Finch to combat against prejudice in legal systems across the world.
A memoir by the criminal defence barrister Sarah Langford, In Your Defence describes the trials of eleven individuals accused of crime or brought before a family court. From the story of Dominic accused of assaulting police officers at the age of ten to representing a mother in a family court desperate to stay with her children, the author divulges the stories of those she has defended in court, bringing a human touch to the British justice system. Not only does Sarah Langford give an insight into the intense courtroom drama, she also highlights the trauma of all those involved in a criminal justice trial and the failings of the often underfunded and overburdened British criminal and family courts. Sarah Langford is not your typical lawyer, studying English at the University of the West of England before entering the legal profession, and she describes her battle against the myths and stereotypes of criminal law. I would thoroughly recommend this novel to any student wanting a greater insight into the practice of a criminal defence lawyer and what it truly is like to be caught in the web of justice.
This book needs no introduction. An essential for all law students, the famous anonymous author tells the story of what being a criminal barrister is like after years of Legal Aid cuts. Often demonstrating the failings of the Crown Prosecution Service and the British Justice Department, the Secret Barrister shows how hardened criminals have escaped justice and yet how innocents have been wrongfully accused paying thousands in order to instruct a barrister due to no access to Legal Aid. Not only has the book received hundreds of awards and is one of the top twenty bestseller novels on Amazon, every single MP in Westminster also received a copy after £10,000 was raised to raise awareness of the Legal Aid crisis. A thought-provoking novel with a real glimpse into what the criminal justice system is truly like, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken is a must for all law students wanting to pursue a career in criminal law. If you have already had the pleasure of reading this book, then look no further as the Secret Barrister is releasing another novel in September this year titled Fake Law: The Truth about Justice in the Age of Lies and there is also a short Channel Four Documentary series called “Inside the criminal justice system with the Secret Barrister” examining how the justice system has coped during the nationwide pandemic.
Another great addition to a law student’s library, William Clegg QC is the forefront English criminal defence barrister in murder trials having defended more than 100 cases throughout his career spanning over 50 years. In this this gripping memoir, William Clegg describes in detail 13 intriguing cases from the infamous murder of Joanna Yeates, the Rebecca Brooks phone hacking trial to defending the first Nazi war crime prosecutions in Britain, sharing with the reader the intriguing world of criminal law and what it truly like to defend an individual accused of murder. William Clegg also recounts his path to the bar, offering advice to those considering a career in criminal defence law and sharing with the reader the necessary skills and techniques needed to succeed in the competitive environment of an advocate’s chambers. This memoir is also very useful for students involved in mooting as the experienced QC offers advice on submitting an appeal to the court, along with general courtroom etiquette.
While the other entries in the list primarily look at criminal defence law, this memoir examines the opposite side of the courtroom of the Crown Prosecution Service. Written by the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, Nazir Afzael is renowned lawyer with expertise in the prosecution of child sexual exploit and condemning violence against women. A practising Muslim, the author shares with the reader his experiences of growing up in 1960s Birmingham discussing the racism he and his family faced along with the killing of his relative by the IRA at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Leading the prosecution in cases of forced marriages and honour killings, the author recounts the murder of Samaira Nazir and his belief the state failed to protect her, along with the cases against grooming gangs such as the Rochdale sex trafficking gang. As an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and against forced marriages and domestic abuse, Nazir Afzael describes his confrontations with far-right groups such as the BNP along with his fellow members of the Asian community. An inspirational novel, The Prosecutor tells the story of one man being a champion for the ignored and his fight to bring the guilty to justice.
With a wide variety of entries on the list, each author brings a different perception of the criminal justice system and the lasting effect it has on those who enter it. They tell stories of complex cases and the courtroom drama that come with them. They divulge the desperation of the accused and the effect crime has on the complainer and the victim. They show the merits of our unique legal system, along with how it does not always get it right. Yet more than all this, under the wigs and gowns of the advocates and barristers, these novels show that criminal law is very much personal and is human nature at its core. I would thoroughly recommend these books to any student considering a career in criminal law to see what it truly is like to be captured in the web of justice.
Can’t you see I’m busy reading?