Lately, I’ve been listening to podcasts in the shower. I don’t like headphones and I don’t have a daily commute to speak of so when else am I going to listen to them, right? Plus, Radio 4 has become almost unbearable and I have to listen to something to wake myself up.

Due to a combination of poor acoustics and ventilation I listen to said podcasts with the tiny top window wide open and the bluetooth radio on full volume. My husband has only recently thought to tell me that when I do this I broadcast every word of my chosen podcast from the second floor across all the gardens in the neighbourhood.

I like to think therefore that the standards of public legal education in my part of North Somerset are particularly high. Saying that, I did try and listen to one such podcast whilst gardening recently, and every time I switched it on the neighbour remembered something else he’d forgotten to strim. So, perhaps not.

Anyway, what delights have I been forcing my neighbours to endure?

Well, first it was the Hidden Homicides podcast. And then a bit of the Post Office Trial podcast series (though I got a bit waylaid during that and lost track).

And more recently I’ve been listening to Malvika Jaganmohan and Maddie Whelan’s Professionally Embarassing podcast series, the first 10 episode series of which has just concluded. I’ve also belatedly spotted Melanie Bataillard-Samuel’s podcast Family Law & Lattes. I’ve only listened to the first episode which was a sort of strangely both reassuring and alarming run down by someone far wiser than I of the post-Brexit landscape in terms of jurisdiction for family matters.

But I really wanted to talk a little about Malvika’s and Maddie’s podcast, because actually I think its really rather great, and I’m a tiny bit jealous I haven’t got off my arse and done something like it myself, and I just think they deserve a big pat on the back. I’ve been talking about making a podcast for a long time, but it just seems like such a huge effort – and now M&M have done one I think they’ve cornered the market. It’s a really great mix of analysis and personal reflection, of law and of practice – and importantly the personality and thoughtfulness of these two engaging, sparky young women really shines through. They care about what they do. They remind me of a much younger me. All enthusiasm and hope and principle. *Sighs wistfully*.

Anyway, far from being professionally embarrassing, I think the podcasts are a great advert for the family bar, and for M&M – they are not afraid to tackle tricky topics, and to give praise and criticism alike where it is due, and they show some great insight into the flaws in the system, the experiences and challenges facing clients as well as other professionals. They are also acting as excellent role models on topical professional issues such as diversity and wellbeing.

I am looking forward to series two – and although their format is pretty much spot on as it is, I am wondering if they will have some guests the second time around. I hope they do – I don’t mean some stuffy Q&A interview format, but I think that there might be some great opportunities for multi-directional learning if they set up some exchanges with some more senior members of the profession – to give just one tiny example (which is not a criticism) it was great to see them showcasing the Resolutions Model in episode 10, in light of a recent case on the topic – but I was shouting from behind my shower screen that Resolutions isn’t actually new at all. It’s been around for years, and when it works it works brilliantly. But in fact, it has almost died out because practically nobody does it any more – the co-founder of it was a chap called Colin Luger from the Bristol area, and he passed a few years ago and since then I’ve struggled to find any expert doing this work. For me the judgment was useful in giving me a name of someone who now does use the model – but I anticipate she will be over capacity as a result! I think the mix of experience and fresh perspective that a junior and a senior practitioner could bring could make this even better. Anyway, that’s my interfering old aunt suggestion, and with that I’m going to butt out.

You can find all these podcasts on Spotify, and I’m sure elsewhere too. That’s just the app I use.

I’ve also discovered other podcasts and put them on my list to listen to during showers yet to come : The justice Gap Podcast and the WiFL – Women in Family Law Podcast.

What I doubt I’ll be doing any time soon is making my own podcast. I would probably have one listener, and that would be my dad. And although M&M’s podcast is pretty slick, I know from bitter experience it will take many more hours to prepare and polish than it takes me to listen. If I wanted to make time for a podcast of my own I’d have to give up several showers a week, and let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone would want that. Pongcast, by Lucy Reed…

Dictionary of Private Children Law

Class Legal have recently published a Dictionary of Private Children Law, co-authored by HHJ Edward Hess, Zoe Saunders, Piers Pressdee QC and Dr Rob George. The Dictionary is a sister to the Dictionary of Financial Remedies, also headed up by HHJ Hess.

The Dictionary comes in traditional Class Legal slimline A4 format, and the back cover tells me it is aimed at judges and practitioners,  but also that it is ‘a book sufficiently accessible for litigants acting without lawyers’.

I found it an intriguing mix of the very basic and the quite niche – some aspects will be redundant for experienced practitioners, whilst others will probably be beyond litigants in person. Writing for such a diverse audience is an almost impossible challenge. That said, there is basically something for everyone in it – it is a dictionary after all, and like any dictionary it doesn’t matter if you already know some of the terms, or if you never need to check on others – that’s the beauty of a dictionary I suppose! You go to the bit you need when the moment arises – and it’s there succinctly defined for you. Having read through it in a slightly artificial alphabetical way, its clear that some pretty tricky topics are quite neatly condensed with useful practical explanations – it looks simple when you just see the end product, but I know that this sort of writing requires both time and skill to do well – and these are done well. There are a few entries which read much more like a textbook with no more than the bare bones of the law rehearsed, without any indication of how they might be deployed in practice (largely those sections in what I think of as the ‘dead zone’ in the Children Act i.e. the alphabetised elevenses (S11A-O) and and s16, which rarely lift off the page in real life for reasons of resource and policy / politics – which is perhaps why they aren’t brought to life in this dictionary either).

I think this book is likely to be of most use for lawyers (including judges) starting out in a new and unfamiliar field – whether that is junior lawyers starting out on a career, established lawyers transferring over from crime, or newly appointed judges from a civil background having to get to grips with a whole new world of family law. But it also holds utility for the more established within the field. There are definitely one or two entries I have made a mental note to use as a panic button next time a particular issue crops up leaving me needing a quick refresher or signpost. I thought the entries on the media and publicity / privacy were examples of entries likely to be particularly useful for busy lawyers or judges who suddenly found themselves in a case where a journalist has attended, and who need a quick reminder of the rules (as someone with a particular interest in this area I thought it was a shame these entries don’t refer to all the relevant and helpful guidance, but I suspect that may be an unfair expectation for such a tightly condensed publication, where references seem predominantly to be to statute, caselaw, rules and PDs only throughout, no doubt for reasons of space).

I do wonder how accessible the language of some entries would really be to litigants in person – some assume a prior knowledge of latin (such as inter partes) or technical legal terms that a litigant in person would be unlikely to grasp, and it feels rather more as if the LiP market is more incidental – rather than this being a product designed for them. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I, having written a book that is designed for LiPs! In fact, I think that this book would probably be quite useful adjunct to my book The Family Court without a Lawyer – although at £65 the pricing is more in the order of practitioner pricing than LiP pricing.

My only other gripe is that as an old crone I found the font size in the print copy almost impossibly small and I really had to squint to read it, which always makes me mildly irascible. Coupled with a column layout that sometimes had me muddling as to which bit of text belonged to which entry, I think the layout of the print copy doesn’t entirely do the content justice. I haven’t seen the electronic version, but I’m confident that these minor issues will be much reduced or eradicated in that format, which these days is very much my preference over print anyway. For me, the idea of a print copy of anything that I can slip in my ‘briefcase’ (as the foreword charmingly suggests I might) is rather quaint and unreal. I’d take an e-copy any day of the week thank you very much, to save my frozen shoulder. There is quite a lot of information about the e-reader format on the Class Legal website, which looks as if it has a good range of functionality (keyword search, annotation etc), even if it does require one to run a different app / browser alongside your normal pdf reader.

You can buy this very useful book at the Class Legal website here.

UPDATE : e-book.

Class legal, having seen my review, helpfully made a copy of the e-book available to me. It can be downloaded and viewed through a proprietary app. I have downloaded and had a play around with the e-book and it definitely is an improvement on the print copy for me – much more readable and of course I can cut and paste. My personal preference would be a pdf version of the book, so that I can have it open in a tab in my pdf reader with my bundles and other case specific materials, rather than having to switch between apps – particularly when working remotely reducing the number of windows and running applications on one device is important to me – which is why, when the publishers of the Family Court Practice decided to format their e-book in some whizzy format a couple of years ago I threw my toys out of the pram! They have gone back to pdf, albeit an eye-wateringly expensive pdf.

The app itself is reasonably easy to use once you have got it downloaded (do read the instructions – I didn’t and I think that accounts for much of my initial confusion). It does lack a ‘back’ button, which is a surprising omission, but I sent some feedback to Class Legal about this and other minor glitches – and they have responded positively to that feedback, telling me that they are working on this with their developer. Given the size of the book this is not a major issue, but it is a bit irritating to have to ‘start again’ at the main menu all the time. There is the facility to make notes (electronic post its) on the book – but I have found that the note function is a bit glitchy. Again, Class are looking at this – as best I can tell it works if you open the app up from the app icon, but not if you access it via a browser. Realistically however, I doubt that for a book of this sort, the note taking function is going to be critical.

So, for me, I’d recommend the e-book in spite of the above. It’s a useful resource that I’d prefer to have on my laptop than in hard copy – and for the reasonable price of £65 (for either hard copy or digital) I can live without a back button. For a publication like the red book that is ten times more expensive and a hundred times more voluminous this sort of limitation on navigation and searchability might be a deal breaker, but here this is no more than a mild irk, and hopefully one that the nice people at Class will sort soon anyway.


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.