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. With remarkable candour, Sarah describes eleven cases which reveal what goes on in our criminal and family courts: these are tales of domestic fall out, everyday burglary, sexual indiscretion, and children caught up in the law. They are sometimes shocking and they are often heart-stopping. She examines how she feels as she defends the person standing in the dock. She also shows us how our attitudes and actions can shape not only the outcome of a case, but the legal system itself.
Langford was determined to bring the clients to life, to give them colour and character so the reader never forgets that these are three-dimensional people, far removed from the labels that are readily placed upon them. In the book most of the chapters right from the beginning inside the mind of the person, Langford wanted to give the reader an experience where they were following that person and given a much richer and complex view of them. There’s Maggie, the young mother desperate to parent her baby, one child already removed from her care. Peter, the eighteen-year-old with blonde curls, caught with hundreds of images of child abuse on his computer. Saba, an excited young bride eager to meet her new husband in England, only for her life to spiral rapidly out of control as he turns out to be a violent abuser.It often reads as a diary or a journal, delving into her emotional responses to the cases that have shaped her career.
The harrowing cases that are characteristic of their working lives become run-of-the-mill. There’s no time to dwell on the parent from whom a child was removed that afternoon, or the vulnerable defendant who was granted a harsh sentence for a one-off, terrible mistake. Lawyers become numb to the emotion and the horror; distanced from the people behind the words on a page.
In one striking passage of the book, Langford writes:
“I discovered that, although I never forgot the images that the words created in my head, their power lessened. Familiarity brought with it desensitization. Repetition reduced their impact. Torment and suffering were turned into text within a statement as human horror morphed into cold evidence. Rape. Penetration. Fissure. Bruising. Blood. Abuse. Someone else’s hell translated into tomorrow’s job.”
The book also deals sensitively with the challenges posed to women at the Bar. In Your Defence isn’t intended to be a modern manifesto for women’s rights. What Langford does is more nuanced and more subtle. Her book is littered with passing references to how her experience of the Bar is shaped, inevitably, by her being a woman. She recalls her second interview for pupillage where the other male candidates “sat with legs confidently spread, looking only an inch or two away from middle age despite their youth”. She writes of her discomfort at having to take off her jacket and fix her bib in a sweltering hot courtroom, anxious not to have her male colleagues stare or, even worse, offer to help. She describes her wariness of a client accused of the violent rape of his wife, resisting the urge to place her hand on the curve of her belly, concealing a pregnancy that is yet to reveal itself. She mentions the “politics of pregnancy”: knowing to disguise it for fear of solicitors not instructing her if she can’t see a case through to the end.
Langford closes her book with a reflection on the importance of the work she does and the system within which she plays a role. It is apt that Langford situates this at the end of the chapter entitled ‘Jude’: the story of a private law dispute between two parents where the father has alienated a child – Jude – from his mother. Despite Jude’s firm protestations, the judge orders a transfer of residence from the father to the mother. Many months later, the judge’s risk pays off, with Jude settled and happy in his mother’s care. At the end of Langford’s position statement: “Jude wants the judge to know that he thinks she made the right decision”.
Reflecting on cases such as this, Langford comments on the fairness and integrity of our justice system, considered to be one of the best in the world. If change is not effected, then there are many more Maggies and Peters and Sabas and Judes whose lives will be at the mercy of a justice system that is unable to deliver fair outcomes; a system that will, ultimately, fail them.