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19 April 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:40am

Atticus Finch is not enough

Why the “great lawyer” theory of justice is misleading.

By David Allen Green

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. 

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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

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