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12 October 2022

Joanna Hardy-Susskind’s Diary: The endless wait for a day in court, Suella Braverman’s drug nonsense, and a lawyer in the Big Brother house

Unconvicted murderers are not, in fact, more popular than exhausted junior lawyers.

By Joanna Hardy-Susskind

“Where is my wig?” I scream at my husband. Then at the dog. The news has just landed: the criminal barristers’ strike is over and it is time to go back to court. I feel like a student after the summer break searching for my lost PE kit.

It turns out that a functioning criminal justice system might be a vote-winner after all. Who knew? With a lurking risk that serious suspected criminals might soon be released on to the streets, the government advanced a compromise. Perhaps a focus group revealed that unconvicted murderers and paedophiles were not, in fact, more popular than exhausted and underpaid junior lawyers. Or maybe a strategy meeting decided that Gotham City was not a sound model for the safe administration of public justice. Either way, the government put a deal on the table and, by a Brexit-esque majority of 57 per cent, my colleagues accepted it. Back to work we go.

Everyone on remand

I stare at my avalanching inbox and try to prioritise. The Crown Court backlog stretches to 60,000 cases. It is a long and particularly brutal queue. By what criteria do we sort the competing levels of catastrophe? I glance at a file about the sexual abuse of children. The parties have waited 18 months for a court date. I flip open a murder case. They’ve waited two years. Next, a theft file. Three years. Telling people how long you have waited for an NHS appointment has become a national sport. But the criminal justice system is often an invisible public service. Fires burn quietly. No one tends to talk about how long Billy has been waiting in a prison cell, or how long Fiona has been waiting to give evidence about the worst day of her life.

Class A madness

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, is not going to let the barristers catch their breath. Reports say she wants to reclassify cannabis as a Class A drug – an idea so wild that it is itself hallucinogenic. More than a quarter of the adult population have used cannabis in their lifetime. Our creaking prisons are overpopulated and understaffed. The starting point for street-selling a Class A drug is four-and-a-half years in prison. Where would we hold the trials? Wembley Stadium? Perhaps we could turn the Isle of Wight into a mass incarceration centre and put on a new ferry service across the Solent.

Braverman quipped at the Conservative Party conference that she is a “recovering lawyer”. I am sure she meant that affectionately. I find myself wondering if during her lawyer years she ever represented one of the kids who use, deal or traffic drugs on the streets. I am regularly taken aback by how young they are. Not always, but often, they have been failed by a succession of underfunded public services: education, housing, youth groups and mental health. I once represented a boy who turned to selling cannabis after his mother dropped him off at the school gates and simply never came back to collect him.

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Slandering north London

Ever since Liz Truss characterised her enemies as the “anti-growth coalition” I have been enquiring about membership. Why has the government made its opponents sound quite so exciting? I hope there is a uniform. Maybe even a hat. The Prime Minister says that would-be members usually live in north London, moonlight on podcasts and waste their time on Twitter. I therefore consider myself qualified and ready for action. It remains unclear what north London ever did to deserve being made the butt of every political joke. It cannot just be the residency of Sir Keir, the proliferation of fromageries or the baffled Bernese mountain dogs on the flat terrain of Highbury Fields. North London does not have a monopoly on the expensive or the ridiculous. Has Truss been back to Deptford recently? They’re selling burnt orange Negronis with no change from a tenner.

A fantasy sabbatical

Big Brother, the original titan of reality television, is staging a comeback. I know, I know. I don’t intend to watch it either. Just out of curiosity, though: have they ever had a lawyer on the show? If not, why not? If the producers want contestants with endless appetites for argument, who never admit when they are wrong and who live entirely for the drama then I think I can assist. I text a colleague. “Should a stint on Big Brother be formally described as a career break, a sabbatical or a secondment?”

The response: “Just find your wig and get back to work.”

Joanna Hardy-Susskind is a criminal defence barrister

[See also: Will Kwasi Kwarteng’s resignation be the price of Liz Truss’s survival?]

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?