The law laid bare

Demonstration against UK cuts to legal aid

How the legal profession is being trashed

Growing up in North Queensland, high on our list of Most Revered Citizens were solicitors. The legal practitioners were known far and wide as men (there were very few women in the profession in the 1950s and 60s) of conservative habits but irreproachable integrity, honesty and wisdom.

Making an appointment with a local solicitor was a very big deal; it meant that you were either making a will, getting a divorce, buying a house or facing police charges.

As a result of this social conditioning, people like me developed “respect for the law”. It was a key part of citizenship and a precious ingredient of our much-prized “liberal democracy”, a relatively new phenomenon which developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries. (It replaced parliamentary democracy which replaced feudalism and the absolute monarchy.)

Attending courts in Australia and the UK, observing the criminality of solicitors, the buffoonery of barristers, the gross bipartisanship of judges and the corruption of attorneys-general changed my mind.

Now a British lawyer has written a courageous book in which he/she lays bare the wholesale criminal behaviour of the English legal profession and the justice system as a whole. Many of the book’s observations could equally apply to the murky situation in Australia but apart from the splendid work of legal writer Richard Ackland (publisher of Justinian, columnist for The Saturday Paper and contributor to The Guardian) the subject is rarely mentioned.

The book is called The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken. Its author wants to remain anonymous so uses the pseudonym of “Russell Winnock” to blow the whistle.

Behind the wigs & gowns

The author reveals that drug-taking is rife and that sexism is commonplace. There are gripping anecdotes about barristers snorting coke before appearing in court and women being “patronised” and “bullied” in chambers.

It all sounds very much like editorial offices of mainstream news organisations in Sydney and Melbourne but you’ll never read about that.

UK polls show that the public perception of the typical barrister is: “Male, white, public school educated, uber-confident and prone to pomposity.”

“Winnock” writes that the reality is that barristers are: “Male, white, public school educated, uber-confident and prone to pomposity.” But concedes: “They are also diligent, quick-witted, loyal and, on the whole, very professional.”

UK statistics on courts and legal behaviour are truly appalling:

  1. There was a backlog of 52,000 Crown Court cases in 2016.
  2. The average interval between the accused’s first appearance and their trial was 123 days, i.e. four and a half months.
  3. Funding for courts between 2010 and 2016 was cut by 35% by the David Cameron and Theresa May Tory governments with more cuts in the pipeline.
  4. The House of Commons all-party Public Accounts Committee concluded in 2016 that “entering the criminal justice system as a victim will test your patience, often to destruction and beyond repair”. The system, the committee found, was riddled with “poor performance, delays and inefficiencies”

Commenting on the book in the Literary Review author and former journalist Stephen Bates wrote: “Perhaps most shockingly and meanly of all, financial cutbacks to the justice system by the government deny compensation to the wrongfully convicted, even after they have spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit.”

Bates concluded that a copy of The Secret Barrister should be compulsory reading for “every judge, every trainee lawyer, every would-be lawyer, every politician and every minister responsible for the legal system”.

Why not extend that gift-giving to Australian judges, lawyers, law students, politicians and justice ministers?

Those still committed to the redeeming virtues of the law should ponder the sour observation by writer Theodore Dreisser (1871-1945) that “life is at best a dark, inhuman, unkind, unsympathetic struggle built on cruelties … and lawyers are the most despicable representatives of the whole unsatisfactory mess”.

It’s just not cricket

In mid-February Australian Test captain Steve Smith won his second Allan Border Medal at a black-tie and bingle ceremony at James Packer’s Crown Casino in Melbourne.

Steve Smith – sacked

In late March Smith was sacked as Test captain and banned from Test cricket while Packer was admitted to a drug addiction rehab clinic in Boston, Massachusetts.

Such is the whirlwind pace of events in the world today.

The media that had been hailing Smith as “the greatest batsman since Don Bradman” were cursing him as a blight on world cricket and calling for a life ban from the game.

James Packer – in rehab

Packer was hailed by the business media as a financial genius who had overcome enormous difficulties to keep his ambitions on track. Really?

Now they are throwing Packer (and Smith) under buses as they scribble their next “exclusive”. These people have no shame and no values.

I have no doubt that Smith, Warner, Bancroft, Lehmann and the bowling attack Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins all deserve to be punished. I include the bowlers because the whole point of ball-tampering is to assist bowlers to take wickets and it is naive to think that someone didn’t tell them: “Look, mate, we are going to work on the ball to make sure it swings; when we’ve done it, go after them and bowl them out!”

When Smith won the Allan Border Medal for the second time in February, he received 123 votes from his teammates and 123 from umpires and media. Smith received 246 votes, Warner 162 and Lyon 156.

How many of those who voted for Smith will support him during his 12-month exile from cricket and how many will brave the social media hysterics and support his return to the game?

I suspect that some cyber-nuts, shock jocks and media scribblers (none of whom care a fig about cricket or have ever been to a game) won’t be happy until Smith is bundled into a psychiatric clinic or chained in the stocks so eggs and rotten tomatoes can be bowled at him. That’s 21st century “justice” for you.

Cricket v Aborigines

In 1868 the first Aboriginal cricket team toured England for a series of matches at Lords, The Oval and famous pitches in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Home Counties and Wales.

The players, all full-blooded Aborigines from rural properties in western Victoria, included Mullagh, Bullocky, Cuzens, Red Cap, Tarpot, Sundown, Jellico, Peter, Dick-a-Dick, Mosquito, Charley and Twopenny.

They sailed from Sydney aboard the Parramatta. Their arrival was greeted by widespread public curiosity with Sporting Life reporting: “They are the first Australian natives who have visited this country on such a novel expedition, but it must not be inferred that they are savages.

“The following gentlemen of the Surrey Club have been selected to play against the Blacks in their first match. In addition, the Blacks are engaged to play Eleven Gentlemen of Kent at Gravesend on Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”

The Aboriginal cricket team of 1868

Despite an arduous tour, bad weather, frequent bouts of illness and desperate homesickness, the team played competently and enthusiastically without winning too many games.

However, the potential of indigenous Australians to outshine their white rivals in Australia and England spooked cricket administrators. They took immediate action to stop cricket from winning wider support among the indigenous population.

Aborigines had been playing a form of cricket for many years (it remains undocumented) using crudely made throwing balls and sticks as bats.

Administrators took steps to outlaw “chucking” and ruled that a bowler’s arm must be kept straight while delivering the ball. The regulation immediately disqualified Aboriginal bowlers who showed deadly speed and accuracy chucking the ball at the wickets.

Australia’s version of apartheid

The next step was to ban indigenous Australians from travelling abroad without the express permission from the government. They couldn’t buy a boat ticket let alone obtain a passport.

As all Aborigines were declared “wards of state” they were effectively grounded and banned from travelling overseas (or even interstate).

The author of this Act in Victoria was the Chief Secretary, a faithful servant of the English Crown, whose policy was to control the black population, assimilate it or simply ignore it.

The notorious Act also gave the London-appointed governor the power to prescribe areas where Aborigines could live and to regulate contracts and other business agreements between European (white) settlers and Aborigines.

Other State governments quickly followed Victoria’s legislation until the Commonwealth became an apartheid-type state with Aborigines as third class citizens confined to prescribed land, jobs, wages and conditions.

Today’s Homeland Security Minister Peter Dutton, a former Queensland copper, would be proud of his forebears. No wonder he feels such a “kith and kin” relationship with South Africa’s Boers and wants to bring them to Australia ahead of everyone else in the queue.

The prospective immigrants are all members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Heaven help us: what is the unreformed church like?

3 comments

  1. Hi Alex,
    While in general agreement with your notes on cricket, there is an important aspect of the “cricket tour” of 1868 that my friend David Sampson argued in his (UTS) Phd thesis on the subject; that is that it was more “freak show” than “cricket” tour, much in the way that other aboriginal peoples were paraded across Europe in the latter half of the 19th century.
    The Aborigial men on that tour also gave boomerang and spear throwing exhibitions, and the focus was generally on their “natural” athleticism, rather than any particular prowess at cricket.
    Enjoy (test) cricket as I do, it’s always important to understand its deep imperialist roots.

  2. Thanks for the usual pithy insights: respect for English law has been the camouflage for so much injustice. Saw it directly in the Old Bailey and in the medieval theatre of Assize courts. As for the Steve Smith saga, why don’t journalists and politicians comment on the latest slaughter of Palestinians, a piece of amoral bastardry far worse than poisoning Russians in Salisbury let alone ball tampering in Caletown.

  3. Talking about trusting lawyers…when I was 19, I lived in a group house (four of us) and on a typical night out, seven of us (including friends) went through Leeton, Darlington Point, Whitton and Griffith (in two cars) and managed to obtain 23 roadside signs, a concrete kangaroo, and a famous station property sign we had to dig out of the ground! A welcome to our home party next weekend resulted in us four being confronted by police, two of us pleading guilty on the assurance of our lawyer (a future president NSW Law Society) we would escape conviction (the others to pay the fines!) because of our prior blameless character. I think the three convictions of theft I incurred were expunged over time under some vague legal reason because I managed to obtain status as a JP. It taught me a lesson, though, to be my own best lawyer!!

    MICHAEL ROSS (ex-Sydney Sun, The National Times, 17 years ministerial staffer Wran and Carr governments)

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