Zoe’s cross examination of the secret barrister…

Zoe Saunders (@zasaunders) kindly reviewed the Secret Barrister’s book for Pink Tape recently. Now she’s only gone and managed to get an interview with SB him/herself. Before you all rush to press Zoe for the name and gender of SB, I am reliably informed that Zoe hasn’t *met* SB, but s/he has provided answers by email. Some of you may be suspicious that this inteview is in fact all a cunning ruse to distract us from the real truth, namely that Zoe is in fact the Secret Barrister (@barristersecret). But I’m pretty sure you’d be wrong….

The highlight of this interview, is the bit about the Daily Mail review of the book – I’m most tickled by the idea that the next reprint might have this on the dust jacket :

“…of some brilliance, clearly explained, cogently argued…Its main distinguishing quality, though, is its absolute reasonableness…”


Anyway, thanks to Zoe and to SB, whoever you are… Without more ado here is the interview.

Disclaimer : it isn’t really *cross* examination, but then all the best cross examination avoids crossness….and I needed an interesting title…


ZS : How difficult is it proving to remain anonymous?


SB : So far, so good. I live day-to-day with the constant low-level anxiety that I’m a minute away from my senior clerk calling to ask me if this rumour they’ve heard is true, but as yet I’ve remained untroubled. While there’s understandable curiosity, I think – or at least hope – that people have accepted that there’s really nothing to be gained from knowing who I am. I’m genuinely not anybody interesting, and all that revealing my identity would lead to is a raised eyebrow and an anticlimactic “Oh.” Like finding out how a magic trick is done. But less interesting.


ZS : Are you not tempted to reveal your identity?


SB : Absolutely not! At present I have the privilege to do my day job, which I love, and my writing/blogging, which I also quite like, but I don’t think they could coexist if my identity were known. Anonymity buys the freedom to be candid and to write independently, without one eye trained on the implications for my practice or my instructions. Realistically, if my identity became known, I think I would have to give up either the writing or my practice, neither of which I’m inclined to do at present.


ZS : Has anyone recommended your own book to you yet?


SB : One or two people. I nearly received a review from my opponent in a recent trial, who asked if I’d read the book, and, when I mumbled something about having heard of it, turned to me conspiratorially and said, “Well, I’ll tell you this. It’s not very…” At that point, the judge walked in, we snapped to attention and the moment was lost. I spent the rest of the trial wondering what adjective would have completed the sentence.


ZS : How does it feel to have had your book sent to every MP?


SB : A little mind-blowing. I’m stunned by the generosity of all of those people – not just lawyers but concerned members of the public – who supported the book and contributed to the Crowdfunder to buy a book for every MP. The Solicitor General said at the Young Bar conference last week that all the legal officers in government have now read it, which is fantastic (if terrifying), and a number of MPs have tweeted to say that they have read or are reading it.


ZS : Do you think that things are likely to improve at the criminal bar?


SB : In the short-term, no. But the next 12 months will I think be critical. We have strong leadership at the CBA, and we are assured that the MoJ is constructively engaging for the first time in recent history. We have been burned many times before, so I am counting no chickens. But if things go well, we could lay the groundwork for medium-to-long-term improvement. The level of fees, and the recruitment and succession crisis, is an obvious problem. But the broader issue of the funding of the Criminal Justice System across the board is something which the MoJ now know we will not let lie, as this not only leads to the diminution of justice, but exacerbates the other, less tolerable aspects of criminal practice; the hours, the treatment of professionals by courts and (some) judges and the stress of doing your job with both hands tied behind your back.


Next year’s spending review will be an important litmus – will the MoJ, for the first time in a decade, fight for increased spending on the courts, Crown Prosecution Service and legal aid? Or will it meekly accept its place as poor relation of the welfare state and offer up the justice system for further cuts?


ZS : Any advice for someone considering becoming a criminal barrister?


SB : The advice you will hear from most, which I heard a decade ago coming to the Bar, is “don’t do crime”. But I wouldn’t echo that. Crime needs good people. And, for all its horrors, there is a reason many of us are still plugging away. It’s fascinating and rewarding and all the other cliches you trot out at pupillage interviews. So I would say do it, but go into practice with your eyes open to the realities. You will not earn very much money (and at the start will be paying to work). Your social life will be a distant memory. But no working day will ever be dull.


ZS : Have you had any abuse as a result of your tweeting and blogging and if so how do you handle it?


SB : Oh, lots. It’s the inevitability of expressing opinions on the internet. There’s a hardcore loyalist “legal aid fat cat” brigade, who refuse to accept that the thousand pounds their mate paid to a commercial barrister does not represent the hourly income of a criminal legal aid lawyer. There are your garden variety racists and misogynists offering their own inimitable analysis on any legal cases in which they perceive the race or gender of the defendant/victim to be relevant. Right now, one of my weekly chores is weeding my blog of comments by Tommy Robinson fans who, outraged at my blogpost criticising their cause, and even angrier at the fact that comments are disabled on that particular post on my blog, have taken to spamming every other (unrelated) blogpost with their worldly views on Muslims, paedophilia and “abuse-enablers” like me and my legal ilk.


Handling it is no doubt far easier for me than for those brave enough to post opinions under their own name. The threats are somewhat denuded when you know that the maniacs have no actual idea who you are. Obviously, I’d rather not have to sift through those sorts of comments, but anonymity at least affords some distance.


ZS : Tell us about the best bit of feedback you’ve had? 


SB : While lots of people have said lots of (undeserved) lovely things, the feedback that I enjoy the most is from non-lawyers, particularly those who say that they have had their preconceptions changed on an issue by reading my take on it. The crisis in criminal justice stems from the lack of public understanding of where the problems lie; reaching people who either haven’t really thought about criminal justice, or have views on the subject informed by tabloid myths, is going to be key to turning the ship around. To that end, while it’s difficult to select just one, a standout review for me personally was the Daily Mail’s review of the book. To have what is essentially a polemic against the policies that the Mail has championed for the last decade described as “of some brilliance, clearly explained, cogently argued…Its main distinguishing quality, though, is its absolute reasonableness” is something that I had not expected.



ZS : How did you manage Stoke Newington Festival without being outed? Have you had any near misses? Would it matter if your identity became known?


SB : I appeared at Stoke Newington virtually over Twitter, which is how all of my “public” appearances have been conducted. Either my Twitter feed is beamed onto a back wall or I tweet and DM the chair to read out my answers, and all can be done from the comfort of my study. So happily, no near misses. Although, for the reasons above, I would not want my identity to become known.


ZS : Where do you see yourself in five years?

SB : In a fantasy world, still writing and practising in tandem. If things go wrong, I’ll be that bedraggled figure in the park shouting at fleeing passers-by about how I used to be a barrister and bestselling author.

2 thoughts on “Zoe’s cross examination of the secret barrister…

  1. With such a good track record of anonymity, the secret world of the Family Court could always provide a second crack of the whip, if the heat gets too much in the criminal court……..

  2. […] Saunders in a guest post on Lucy Reed’s Pink Tape blog: Zoe’s cross examination of the secret barrister…  (This follow’s Saunders’ review of Secret Barrister’s book in an earlier guest post: The […]

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