Fake Law – A for effort

I thought this book review would be a no brainer. The Secret Barrister’s first book was brilliant. His/her second will be too, I thought, assuredly. And so it is. It is brilliant. And everything s/he says in it is right. And important.

But this bloody book review is NOT a no brainer. It’s been really hard. First of all, I am not the first clever lawyer to write a review of this clever lawyer’s book. Others have got there before me.

There was David Allen Green in Prospect Magazine, which ran with the headline and strap line : ‘The Secret Barrister exposes how political and media charlatans have vandalised the rule of law – “Fake law” offers a powerful corrective to self-serving claims from cynical and incompetent politicians’, and which noted the irony of a an anonymous lawyer lecturing us about fake law :

This is the second book by the “Secret Barrister.” There is, of course, a certain irony that a book about legal fakery is written by someone whose exact legal credentials are not revealed. That said, if a great deal of law in practice exists in the mind, then so can the authority of the “Secret Barrister.” We may not know their actual qualifications. But we can go by their attention to often grimy and telling detail, their verifiable claims about the law and justice system, and their consistently light and engaging manner. The authority of this author is in the sheer quality of the writing. To keep up to this standard in tweet after tweet, blogpost after blogpost, and now book after book is remarkable—especially if, as the author tells us, they do all this in addition to a busy and stressful criminal practice.

The Times ran a review by barrister and legal author Thomas Grant QC, which told us oh-so-eloquently why this book was bloody brilliant :

The SB is an accomplished writer who through vivid metaphor can enliven the most recondite legal concepts. Some passages of Fake Law have the tone of a law lecture, but the truth is not always fascinating and it is rarely easy. Still, this is an urgent and highly readable book. You will come away from it feeling that your mind has been purged. The intellectual project that started with the Enlightenment — purveying truth and slaying mendacity — unfortunately requires constant renewal. Fake Law is a valuable contribution to that unceasing battle.

Yes, I had to look up recondite, too (little known, abstruse – abstruse means difficult to understand, obscure btw – this is why I am not a QC). So like a lawyer to select recondite language with which to review a book about ‘recondite legal concepts’…

But let us not duplicate work here. I tease about the language, but I do adopt what my learned friends have said and refer you to their reviews – there is no need for me to rehearse what they have already so eloquently laid down. I don’t disagree with any of it.

Now. Let’s cut to the chase. I have some other things to get off my chest.

First, a declaration : I am a lawyer. This book is, at its heart, a defence not just of law but of lawyers, and of legal twitter. And SB is our gowned and masked crusader in the big wide world where we mutants are reviled. Those of us who haunt the halls of legal twitter already know everything that is in this book. We agree with everything SB says. We’ve joined in the debates as they emerged, berated the tabloids, the stupid politicians, corrected the plebs, stamped our feet, got shouty with our keyboards and paraded our own superiority. Of COURSE this bloody book is brilliant and clever, just like the first. It’s us. It’s the bar. It’s our specialness writ large beneath a snazzy cover.

But here’s the thing. Lawyers doing reviews of this book have the motivation, concentration and incentive to finish this book. Not only is it quite rude to be sent a free copy of a book and not bother reading it, but in fact, when all the stories in it are familiar to you because you lived them at the time, it’s a really quick, easy read (though I still couldn’t quite get this review done in time for publication day – I am a second tier reviewer and only got my copy a week before release day). For us, pages filled with ego boosting pro-lawyer prose roll by with ease, making the experience almost cheering, so much so that one could almost forget momentarily SB’s more depressing message about the persistent and pernicious attacks on the justice and the rule of law made by the Government and the media and the ease with which those messages are absorbed and accepted – we know we’re worthy even if the public and the Government don’t appreciate us. Of course I wanted to review this book! But there really is little point in me writing a review that amounts to no more than marking my chum’s homework.

We lawyer readers of SB are the converted – I wonder if the public will have the inclination in large numbers to purchase and then wade through a book which, whilst righteously accurate, does require quite high literacy skills and concentration to digest (notwithstanding SB’s skill in summarising and lightening with humour), and which is threaded through with the (politely and carefully made) accusation that the intended mainstream reader is ignorant, uneducated, has been played by the media, the Government, and their own failure to stop and think before judging? I dunno. In fact I think David Allen Green touches upon this in his review when he says :

Fake Law is mostly concerned with the far broader perils that flow from a deficient public understanding of the law, and may sometimes seem to be conflating two problems—the cynicism of those who want to abuse the law, as well as those who simply don’t understand it. Perhaps each might better merit a separate book.

The more I think about it the more I think that this book faces some structural and stylistic problems. It’s headline is that ‘THE DAILY MAIL AND MALIGN GOVERNMENT LIED TO YOU SHOCKER!’ – a punchy, digestible headline for sure, for which there is a ready audience. But the actual 400 pages of analysis, may well exhaust the patience of those who would be attracted by such attention grabbers.

I say this as the chair of a charity whose aims overlap significantly with the SB (The Transparency Project) and indeed much of legal twitter. We just want to correct the inaccuracies peddled by governments and the media about our laws and how they work. We just want to help the public understand more about the legal system and why it’s important. Laudable. Important. Essential.

But, just as I sometimes have dark nights when I wonder what is the POINT of a legal educational charity in a world so mired in fake news and conspiracy theory, I also wonder whether a book by a clever lawyer, lauded by other clever lawyers in clever reviews fix the problems that it so rightly identifies? I don’t think so. Perhaps the book will stand as a record in years to come of how we reached a point of where the rule of law collapsed. If the books haven’t all been burnt. But will it stop the rot? I don’t think so. I think that SB’s book is like an old LP record that we get out and caress and sentimentally play over and over to make ourselves feel better about a relationship that has ended and that we long for but know is over. In fairness it is clear from the epilogue that SB is not deluded enough to expect it to FIX the problem as much as catalyse our realisation of how pervasive and pressing this societal problem is, and how much we need to be constructing a way out.

This week the Bar Council published a piece of advertorial for a PR Firm telling us barristers how we could use social media to develop our brand. I’d like to think that most of legal twitter is not there for the “brand opportunity” (yeurk), but primarily to connect, learn, share knowledge and survive. But there is no doubt that when lawyers get together we have a tendency to crow and scoff and bludgeon poor unsuspecting normals with our legal baseball bats. And boy do we know how to project our own voices and articulate our rightness. Legal twitter can be oblivious to how tiresome the public sometimes find us. As a community we are sometimes a little tone deaf, and susceptible to the charms of the echo chamber of twitter. For my part, whilst I have done my fair share of exasperated foot stamping about the BS pumped out by certain media outlets or the idiocy of individuals with keyboards, I have come to think that softly softly is more likely to catch the monkey. Mere broadcast of a counter-narrative is far less effective than dialogue. Which is not to say that dialogue always works – it is often as depressingly ineffective as a good old tantrum.

Either way, I don’t think ultimately that the skillful branding and marketing of SB and his/her book will be enough to overcome these issues about the gap between SB’s intended audience (The ignorant, hoodwinked and misled masses) and their interest in reading a long book by a clever lawyer, even if it is marketed with punchy hashtags, and its author is given a super hero air with mask and ‘cape’ style gown. I know that the first book was a bestseller, and this book is no less good. But I think it’s target audience is somehow different – SB is not talking to the avid readers of books who will buy such a title in vast numbers, but to those who don’t read books at all, just headlines and maybe an online article. This book makes demands of a lay reader that mean that it’s mainstream reach is unlikely to be as great as SB, the publishers – or we lawyers – would wish. I want it not to be so, but I fear that it is. It’s too hard. There are easier ways of understanding the world – that involve less effort, less thought and less cognitive dissonance. Those who need to read this won’t be interested or won’t have the motivation to see it through. The public isn’t ready to hear it.

When I first saw Home Office tweets about ‘activist lawyers’ coinciding with the run up to the book’s launch I imagined writing a book review japing about how the Ministry of Justice had obviously been recruited to play a part in a canny PR campaign to make this book seem even more timely. But as I write now, with Priti Patel repeating those slurs against us – all of us – that joke rings a bit hollow. The Government tweet this because it’s what people want to hear. Priti has got 12.5k likes for this tweet :

Whilst SB’s ‘publication day’ tweet got only 1.5k.

In fairness, SB’s RT of that tweet commenting on Priti’s latest activist lawyer tweet also has 2.2k likes at the time of writing. But what proportion of these likes are from legal twitter?

So I ask, will those who really need and ought to read and be educated by this book bother? That I do know the answer to : of course they bloody won’t. The people who will read it are the minority of members of the public with an interest in the detail of our democratic and legal system and a tolerance for law and detail, and sufficient education and skills to access it – and lawyers like me who value the reassurance of a validating essay on why we are right and wise.

It might be said that the pessimism I display in this book review is, ironically, another illustration of how arrogant and patronising we lawyers are to non-lawyers. It’s not about suggesting the plebs are stupid, but we have to acknowledge the reality, that much of society habitually sources it’s information about the world via the tabloids, social media or online. I prefer to think that I have a healthy sense of how insufferably boring a droning lawyer can be to a normal person. Even when they are right. Which of course we always are.

In spite of what I say here, I wish SB’s book every success. It truly is all those things that the previous reviews say it is and it is every bit as on point as the first. He is depressingly right about it all. And the proposals for a way out in the epilogue (which I won’t spoil for you) are as good a set of solutions or mitigations as can be, and rightly recognise we need to build democratic and legal literacy into our society from the ground up. For my part, I hope that every MP and newspaper editor will read it and think about the consequences of their actions, and that this book will be put in every school library. I hope that it will bring about some enhancement of the dire state of our public discourse, for it is certainly not just a cabal of activist lawyers who would benefit from it. And in the meantime I, and all my colleagues and friends who make up legal twitter will carry on tirelessly correcting #fakelaw wherever we see it and trying not to be too insufferable about it. Because whilst I have gloomy days like today when I think it’s just a waste of energy I also know that it’s really important to keep on standing up for truth and the rule of law.



Feature pic : courtesy of TaylorHerring on Flickr.

My Name is Why – Read it

I’m not going to do a book review of this book. I can’t write anything that will capture what is beautiful and awful and heartbreaking, gut wrenching and true about this book, or why you just should read it. Just believe me. You should read it. It will take you an evening and you won’t want to put it down. And you will cry. And then it will be over.

It is written like fiction, but it isn’t. It is poetry but it isn’t. It is forlorn and hopeful and fiery and a perfectly formed economical narrative about growing up as a child in care. About being in ‘the care’ of a system that doesn’t see you. And about finding out who you are.

If you are a judge, a family lawyer, a social worker, an adopter, a foster carer or a child in care : read it.

If you are a human with parents or a human without them : read it.

We need to see the system through the child’s eyes.

Thanks Lemn.


You can buy My Name Is Why at Amazon, and if you follow this link to get there you can select The Transparency Project as your named charity, meaning each purchase you make through Amazon sends a teeny bit to The Transparency Project – that bit isn’t obligatory, but I’d be very pleased if you did (this is the first time I’ve tried this link so do let me know if it doesn’t work).


What have you done to my red book, dudes?

Since I started life at the bar a copy of the Red Book (Family Court Practice) has been my comfort blanket. Initially an old beaten copy of last year’s edition given to me by someone in chambers who knew how tough it was to find the money to buy one when starting out (it was still expensive  then, around £400 I think). Later my very own…One year I had two when, having bought one, Jordans sent me a review copy meaning I could have one for home and one for chambers. And more recently, after years of the paper getting thinner and thinner and the book still getting heavier and heavier (particularly in the Munby years!) – I took the plunge and moved to the pdf version.

I found over time that on a holistic welfare analysis of the pros and cons of the red book, that the frequency with which I needed to refer to the red book had diminished to the point where it was just a massive pain in the backside (figuratively) and shoulder (literally) to lug around a book that I almost never looked at. It was still worth paying an exorbitant amount for a book I rarely used, because it was valuable when I did need it, but it wasn’t worth carrying around in hard copy all year just because the paper version was marginally easier to navigate. So, paperless it was.

I was still largely working on paper at that time, and hated the pdf version at first, but persevered and managed to get the hang of its basic navigation. It wasn’t the best even right up to last year, but then I have become used to working with a text book that, even in hard copy, always had an index that NEVER included the keyword I wanted to search for. As my pdf skills improved, most notably as I began to go paperless entirely last year, I reached a point where I could usually find the page I wanted faster than anybody else, using page numbers, key word searches and occasionally the irritating index – and I could extract the relevant few pages with a couple of taps on my ipad and ping them to judge or opponents. Making me the biggest keener in the room. Plus my shoulders didn’t hurt any more from carrying the damned thing around on my back or in a suitcase.

So, I ordered it again this year….

It arrived about a month ago – later than usual because, I think, it was issued simultaneously with the hard copy, and the hard copy was held up by some mysterious print error which now seems to have been the faliure by someone to have included the index! Thus, those who are still on paper now have a huge red book to carry, AND the annoyance of having to also lug around a separate index, and to try not to lose or forget it.

But this year sadly the advantages of going paperless have evaporated. Without warning the publishers have moved the digital version across to epub format which means you can’t just open the red book in a tab on your pdf reader. You have to open it in an entirely separate app (on my machine apple books) and if in court switch between one app and another to go between your red book and your bundle.

So, within an hour or so of download I’d given up on it, having established that :

  • the file was prone to hanging up my app on either the laptop or ipad, and only intermittently showed in the apple books library on both
  • the navigation was completely impossible to operate because the ToC was clickable but not easily scrollable, could not be furled and unfurled, the links didn’t work reliably and the search function / page navigation / back functions don’t operate at all the same as in my pdf reader (if they work at all). After multiple attempts I could not work out how to navigate back to page one, back to the index, or back to where I’d been a moment ago before accidentally clicking on something in the ToC whilst trying to scroll down to locate what I actually needed. It’s not clear to me how much of this is specific to the way the navigation on the specific file is set up and how much of it is to do with the software it is required to run on, but either way its massively annoying.
  • there was no way of extracting a section of text to print or email to an opponent or judge
  • everyone else who had tried it was similarly disgruntled as far as I could tell from social media

I mulled it over for a week or so, tried it again a couple of times, but ultimately decided this was not something I wanted to pay 500 quid for. I’d also remembered in the meantime that our chambers subscription to lexis provides an online version of the red book, which, although a little cumbersome, is actually possible to navigate, download sections, and email to self etc. Now that wifi is (touch wood) pretty reliable in almost all the courts I visit, this seemed to me to strike a far better balance as between cost, benefit and irritation levels.

So I cancelled. Or at any rate I tried to. But I was persuaded, as it seems were a number of others, to wait for a pdf version of the book that they were apparently working on in response to negative feedback (seriously, the feedback must have been atrocious for them to do this!). It would be ready in a couple of weeks and the cancellation period would be extended. I was sceptical now I’d settled on falling back on the lexis subscription, but thought I’d wait and see.

Over the weekend I was sent another download. It is another epub document. It has all the same issues, and I can’t see any difference. It ISN’T a pdf. I tried to use it to answer an actual live question a colleague had coincidentally asked me to test it out again. It took me almost ten minutes to work out how to get to information about change of name and the notes to s13 Children Act 1989, by which point the answer had already been found. In it’s current form it is no use to me at all.

There is now a suggestion that in fact this was an error and the pdf version will not be coming until September. In the meantime the product I have is unusable and the lifespan of this £500 product will be reduced to 9 months (assuming that the publishers are back on schedule to publish in May 2020 as usual. There is (so far) no suggestion that the price will be discounted for those who don’t cancel.

I will wait and see what comes but the longer I go on the harder it is to see how I could justify this sort of expenditure. I’ve written this post not just to have a pop at Lexis, but for two reasons :

  • firstly, I would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences or if I am being a bit of a failure in getting to grips with apple books. Maybe there are some easy work arounds that I’ve not found, although I’m not hugely inclined to spend much time up-skilling myself. Maybe there is some other piece of software available on both laptop and ipad that will transform the experience. If you do have useful practical tips to share please add a comment.
  • secondly, I suspect that there are lots of people who have been sent downloads which they’ve not really looked at as its the summer – they may be on holiday – and they may not have grappled with the 14 day cancellation period, may not appreciate the wider issues, and may not be aware that there is the prospect of a pdf version emerging in the autumn. As far as I am aware lexis have not sent any proactive general email to purchasers of the epub version letting them know what is going on – they have responded to those who have kicked up.

I think on both points the sharing of knowledge will hopefully reduce the amount of stress and duplication of time that we all spend sorting this out. We’re all still on a learning curve on paperless working – even those who were early adopters. I’ve found twitter and social media really useful for cutting through barriers to doing this or that, as often someone can say ‘oh that’s easy, to solve x problem you just do y’ – a solution that you would never find through trial and error or via google or a helpline. So, your thoughts, experiences and tips please.

I do close though by noting that I find it frustrating that the new epub version of the book was launched with a great flourish as new and improved without (as far as I can tell) any decent market research. It would have taken no effort at all to really find out about the users of this book to know that we are moving in droves into digital format, but we are working with multiple files in pdf formats and that the book was therefore already in the right format for the users of it (albeit that the navigation was less than brilliant). Big pdfs are cumbersome even when the navigation is set up properly, but there was plenty of scope to invest energy into improving the navigation and utility of the pdf book without switching formats. I’m afraid I think that Lexis have squandered a lot of the goodwill that Jordans built up over many years as the main family law publisher, by treating loyal customers in this way – I don’t know but suspect that the rationale was probably something to do with moving to a format that better protects copyright, but whatever it was this will have hit revenues at Lexis (although of course even the revenues from the red book are a mere drop in the ocean for the big beast that is Lexis). It is such a shame because the actual content of the red book is second to none – and when you do need it it is invaluable. But, whilst I will make my final decision when I see they promised pdf version, it is very probably the case that this episode has nudged me into a realisation that I probably don’t need to pay this much money for this product any more.