Source: Review Copy
Publication: 28 June 2018 from Doubleday
ISBN 13: 978-0857525284
Sarah Langford is a barrister. Her job is to stand in court representing the mad and the bad, the vulnerable, the heartbroken and the hopeful. She must become their voice: weave their story around the black and white of the law and tell it to the courtroom. These stories may not make headlines but they will change the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary ways. They are stories which, but for a twist of luck, might have been yours.
To work at the Bar is to enter a world shrouded by strange clothing, archaic rituals and inaccessible language. So how does it feel to be an instrument of such an unknowable system? And what does it mean to be at its mercy? Our legal system promises us justice, impartiality and fair judgement. Does it, or can it, deliver this?
With remarkable candour, Sarah describes eleven cases which reveal what goes on in our criminal and family courts. She examines how she feels as she defends the person standing in the dock. She tells compelling stories – of domestic fall out, everyday burglary, sexual indiscretion, and children caught up in the law – that are sometimes shocking and often heart-stopping. She shows us how our attitudes and actions can shape not only the outcome of a case, but the legal system itself.
When you read as much crime fiction as I do, it’s impossible not to become fascinated by all the component parts of seeking justice from forensic examinations through to the courts procedures and processes. There are, of course, a number of different non-fiction books on the subject of crime and the courts. From the self-aggrandising to the polemical, these play their part in the cannon of articulating what justice means in our society.
What struck me immediately about Sarah Langford’s book, In Your Defence, is her tone of voice. This is beautiful, heartfelt writing that is neither self-publicising nor overly sentimental. Rather it is a series of cases from the criminal and family courts that shed some light on the way that society treats those on whom it would pass legal judgement. Langford relates these stories as case studies, with the names and locations changed, but all are real cases she has been involved in. She is an intelligent and compassionate narrator, never fearful of showing where she feels she took the wrong step, and taking us through her thoughts and actions as she handled these cases.
None of these cases are big trials, rather they are the day in day out bread and butter of a barrister, yet Langford learns very early on to remember just how important these cases are to those who are in court to face them.
I love the way that each case is titled with a first name; these are people first and cases second. From the terrifying, misdiagnosed psychopath to the small child pulled apart by warring parents, Langford sets out the issues, her feelings and the judgements as she travels up and down the South and West of England, trundling her wheelie case full of papers with her.
This is an immensely thoughtful book that tells us a great deal about the strain that both the legal system and social services is under as well as musing quietly over some of the other, more fundamental issues like what marriage means under the law. But it’s not a book that bashes us over the head with such things, rather we can hear the system groan and strain as each case is considered and to some extent we have to marvel at a system that can still sometimes get it right in the face of such difficulties.
The stories of eleven people are told in this book from the dangerous, to the bad, to the vulnerable and the forgotten. Each is important; some will have their lives changed forever by the court’s decisions. From each of these cases we can take something to make us feel hopeful, though despairing at the pattern of the lives of those who are repeating the same mistakes over and over.
A marvellously readable book that asks us to consider what justice really means and whether we can still deliver it, this is a book to treasure. I really loved it and would highly recommend it to everyone.
Verdict: Warm, compassionate and completely riveting. A real keeper.
About Sarah Langford
Sarah Langford has been a practising barrister since 2006, both in London and around the country, principally in criminal and family law. She studied English at the University of the West of England. She worked as a barmaid, legal secretary and note-taking clerk before completing a law conversion, in which she gained a distinction. She was awarded a scholarship from Gray’s Inn of Court and went on to train as a barrister. She lives with her husband and two small boys in London and Suffolk.
Follow Sarah on Twitter @wigsandwords