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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Private renter poverty has doubled in a decade - so where's Labour?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation named housing market failures as driving poverty. 

Labour’s economic policy task is enormous. It must find a coherent argument that addresses Brexit, the “left behinds”, and a nervous business community. But there is one policy area that should be an open goal – private renting. 

The number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Those most likely to fall into poverty are working families – there were 2.8m of these people in 2014-15, compared to 1m a decade earlier.

“Failures in the housing market are a significant driver of poverty,” the report noted, after finding more than 70 per cent of private renters in poverty pay at least a third of their income in rent.

This is particularly the case if you consider the knock-on effect - housing benefit. This benefit was frozen by George Osborne, meaning that by 2015 Shelter calculated rates had fallen behind actual rents in nearly 70 per cent of England. For families out of work, of course, housing benefit is also included in the benefit cap. 

Private renter poverty is easily characterised as an inner-city problem – the kind cherished by the “metropolitan elite”. But in fact, across Great Britain as a whole, roughly one in ten children under 19 lives in a family that is privately renting and claiming housing benefit. The highest percentage was in Blackpool, followed by the Essex coastal area of Tendring, followed by London boroughs. Private renting is a trend that affects both the Remain strongholds and the Leave coastal towns.

So far, Labour has been relatively quiet on private renting. During the summer’s leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn promised to introduce “rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights” (a promise he repeated as part of a longer speech in November). But this is hardly a blockbuster campaign. 

And the challenges are great. A convincing renting policy must explain how Labour would deal with a reactionary letting market industry (including pensioner voters), whether renting should be a step to buying, or an end in itself, and how new council and social housing would be allocated.

Labour could also, though, tie a rent campaign into other trends - the growing army of self-employed that find it hard to prove their wages to a landlord or mortgage lender, the working families on frozen benefits, and the employers that find their employees priced out of the local area. And pissed-off tenants are not hard to find. 

If Labour doesn’t move soon on an issue that should be its natural home, the government may steal the keys. In the Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond helped himself to Ed Miliband’s 2015 promise to ban letting agent fees. The government has also set up a working group with members of the private renting industry. (Yes, the government may also be selling off social housing under Right to Buy, but if you never had the option of social housing anyway, this may pass you by.)

Fixing the housing market takes imagination and a steeliness to take on entrenched interests. But if Labour does come up with a solution, it could touch the lives of voters, both Leave and Remain. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.