Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Diary
31 August 2022

Joanna Hardy-Susskind’s Diary: Wigs on the picket line and my fight to fix the justice system

Dealing with Dominic Raab is like trying to reason with an ex who’s packed his bags, downloaded Tinder and decided he is keeping the cat.

By Joanna Hardy-Susskind

Criminal barristers are on strike. Admittedly, the optics might raise an eyebrow. Any picket line with sweeping black gowns and fancy horsehair wigs will face an uphill struggle in the court of public opinion. “You look like a bunch of 17th-century French kings,” a friend helpfully offers. In July a YouGov poll placed public opposition to striking barristers at almost two-thirds (65 per cent) – making us the least popular of 14 professions considered. I find myself hoping that traffic wardens or estate agents might join the “hot strike summer” just so we can feel a little less unpopular. Could this be our toughest jury yet?

A motorway jam of human misery

Any decent lawyer knows that to win a case you need the facts on your side. We have plenty of those. Many junior criminal barristers in their first few years of practice are working at less than the minimum wage. We have endured a 28 per cent decrease in real earnings since 2006. We have lost a quarter of specialist barristers in five years. We risk haemorrhaging a generation of diverse lawyers that had just started to transform this male-and-pale profession. Many of them are state-school educated, burdened with loans and have chosen the public service of legally aided work over more lucrative commercial options. Those who cling on have a mounting, urgent caseload. The work is harrowing and relentless. Cases of alleged murder, rape, robbery and child abuse join a queue that is fast approaching 60,000. This is a motorway jam of human misery. And it is gridlocked. One London courthouse is setting trial dates in 2024. We work harder and longer but, ultimately, we are treading water.

[See also: Ian Hislop’s Diary: The talented Mr Pooter, Spike Milligan’s chaos, and heaven vs Lewisham]

Complainants wait. Witnesses wait. Public safety waits. Defendants wait. Some of them will be guilty. Some will decide that waiting years on bail is altogether more comfortable than pleading guilty and going to prison now. Some of those waiting will be innocent. Hauntingly so. And, in the words of the National Lottery, it could be you. You might think the darkest days of a defence barrister are spent representing the personification of evil. You would be wrong. The cases that keep me up at night are of those people hauled through this cold system who did precisely nothing wrong. They sit in court, wide-eyed, never thinking a dock was somewhere for someone like them. Until, of course, it was. It might have been the car accident, the stag do, the angry neighbour or the misunderstanding at work. But whatever it was, it blind-sided them. They arrive at court clutching their paperwork with a supportive spouse or parent. They hope to “clear all this up”. It almost always takes years. It often takes everything they have.

An intervention from Dominic Raab

Behold. Later in the week I see Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has found the time to talk to a newspaper. Which is funny because, since this saga started, he has not met with the leader of the Criminal Bar Association. Still, perhaps negotiation tactics were taught differently at his law school. He has told the media that striking barristers are “holding justice to ransom”. This seems a pretty peculiar way of thanking me for consistently getting up at 5am, representing the most marginalised in society, cross-examining the vulnerable with care, funding my own sick leave and my own pension contributions, and working late into the evening considering photographs of corpses or the accounts of abused children.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Peculiar, too, because our strike is robust, but it is not wantonly cruel. We have exceptions for cases that involve vulnerable people who are less able to withstand disruption. But these are the dying days of a wounded government and Raab has backed the wrong pony in the leadership race. He will be shown the exit soon. Negotiating with him now is like trying to reason with an ex-boyfriend who has packed his bags, downloaded Tinder and decided he is keeping the cat. You can shout if you like, but his Uber is already on its way.

Content from our partners
Why competition is the key to customer satisfaction
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas

Soggy strike September

Two days before our full strike, and four months after we started incremental action, it began to rain. Inside. On my wig, to be precise. As I dashed down the corridor at Croydon Crown Court, the carpet was squelching underfoot. I was there to conduct a sentence in a serious case. The fixed fee for a sentencing hearing is £126, regardless of preparation time or what is at stake. I stopped to stare at the rotten ceiling tile and the manky bin catching London’s filthy rainwater. “Just about sums the whole thing up,” growled a seasoned barrister, shuffling past. So much, then, for our “hot strike summer”. Perhaps it will be a “soggy strike September” that brings someone to the table.

[See also: James Rebanks’s Diary: Drought in England, sweat in Italy, and what Liz Truss gets wrong about farming]

Topics in this article: ,

This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine