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.)

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.