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: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.