Atticus Finch is not enough

Why the “great lawyer” theory of justice is misleading.

President Obama has provided an introduction to a special television showing of To Kill A Mockingbird. In one way, this gesture shows great taste and political savvy: the story of Atticus Finch’s battle against racial injustice is heart-lifting and remains of potent relevance today. 

Yet To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of legal failure on a systemic scale.

Finch’s defence is almost inevitably unsuccessful, and an evidently innocent man is convicted. Nothing – not even someone as attractive and righteous as Finch – can save Tom Robinson: the criminal justice system was so dysfunctional that a courageous and incisive lawyer is effectively bound to fail.

It remains a mystery why this great book and film encourages anyone to be a lawyer, so horrific are the defeatist implications of the tale for the legal system.

But the story continues its hold over popular culture. Many people, when asked who they would select as the greatest lawyer in fiction, would still choose the brave but ultimately ineffectual Finch. The reason for this is simple: Finch is a great man who happens to be is needed for a good justice system than for lawyers and their clients to be nicer people. 

In reality, few cases depend entirely on the performance of a single lawyer: it is how the lawyers on both sides and the court system work together which ensures whether the interests of justice are served.  And in criminal cases there are the wider issues of the role of the police and of the probation and prison services.  Criminal justice is complex, and so just outcomes depend on the efficient interaction of many professionals and on the resources available to them.  Injustice is what happens when this system fails or is improperly resourced.  But few politicians and their voters want to grasp at the problems of the justice system: instead, yet more laws will be passed to be enforced with less money.

And so we have a politician seeking re-election commending Finch on a television special, and everyone will then be inspired by watching a great man lose his case. If only every lawyer was like Finch, the viewers will think, and the world would be such a better place.  And the criminal justice system will carry on failing, just as before.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson in court. Photo: Rex Features

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.