Rumpole in defence of the criminal bar…


I posted a ‘shelfie’ for the ‘books for prisoners’ campaign last week – and was just looking at it and noticed that one of the books on the shelf was ‘The Best of Rumpole’. Rumpole was (and is) one of my heroes – so I took down the book, and started reading the introduction.

RumpoleJohn Mortimer, who created and wrote the Rumpole stories, and who was himself a barrister, said some things in the introduction that reminded me why I find myself instinctively in tune with the criminal bar – though I am not a real lawyer at all. He wrote this introduction in 1992, but the words ring even more true today than they did back then. I’ll just repeat them as Mortimer wrote them:

“On the whole, lawyers are as unpopular as income tax collectors and traffic wardens. People think they tell lies and make a great deal of money. In fact, old criminal defenders like Rumpole don’t make much money and they stand up for our great legal principles – free speech, the idea that people are innocent until someone proves them guilty to the satisfaction of ten ordinary members of a jury, and the proposition that the police should not invent more of the evidence than is absolutely necessary. They protect the rights for which we have fought and struggled over the centuries, and do so at a time when jury trials and the rights of an accused person to silence are under constant attack from the government.”

That was back in 1992 – in 2014 the attacks from the government are far more intense, far more far-reaching, and sadly seem far more likely to succeed. We should be doing everything we can to defend the criminal bar from them, if we believe in any of these things. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do.

12 thoughts on “Rumpole in defence of the criminal bar…

  1. The slow erosion of law is just another bolt been loosened to the scaffolding needs to function. Like the majority of polities this government has introduced, the personal costs of their decisions has not been considered or even cared about.

    1. Thanks – though I think it might be even worse. The personal costs have been considered and approved of. They like poorer people having less access to justice…

  2. The question that needs to be answered is whether it is the government of the people that want this. By focusing on the “government”, it simply absolves people of any responsibility and they can feel morally satisified to complain or tut tut.

    The true test is how many of them prayed for inmates? How many visited them? How many sent them books? How many of them talked to a prisoner or helped them out after they left prison?

    It might be fashionable to be morally indignant but that simply ignores the reality. The reality is that this is a designer outrage that simply takes our fancy because we want to appear to be in tune with our group and not rock the boat. The intellectual posturing that masks the underlying political conformity is hardly doing justice to the plight of prisoners.

    The deeper issue is not books, it is how society rehabilitates them as they usually only read true crime or similar books rather than Plato’s crito.

    Propose some ways to rehabilitate offenders and prevent their crimes, as there us a strong correlation between illiteracy and crime as well child abuse and crime. Both of these come back to the family first and then the that the state is miat peoples parents, is it any wonder we have such problems?

    I winder if anyone will be posting family phitis to support a decent society that would accept that prisoners are part of their wider family literally and spiritually.

    We seem to have forgotten that both Christ and Socrates were convicted criminals executed by the state. Todays intellectual and political classes can neither recognize nor understand nor articulate either of their teachings which probably explains why we lack books in prisons.

    1. I’m not sure that’s the key question – particularly given that the blog post is actually about the question of the criminal bar, not books for prisoners. The books for prisoners issue is a big one, but not the key here, just the trigger.

      1. The issue is what the people want and how that is translated into deeds. The government is not attacking the law profession. The government is not an independent agent. It acts because the people direct it.
        Here is a practical way to test it. Head down to the bus station and ask random people whether they agree with the need to reform the legal system or whether society can “afford” the various rights that are being promoted.
        The legal system is not the defender of rights. They act upon the law, which enshrines those rights. The lawyers promote or argue on behalf of their clients not on behalf of rights. We may wish to see them as heroic and in some cases they may be heroic but that does not mean that the profession is heroic. On the contrary, for each case promoting the right, there is one seeking to constrain it, which always seems to be forgotten. The news of the world had a very large and active legal team, but one would be hard pressed to say they were heroic given the ethos they were defending on a regular basis. Then again, I do not consider Carl Schmitt or Hans Kelsen to be heroic although they were devout in defending rights.
        If the legal system is under threat it is under threat from indifference of the regular citizen, because they do not see it as a forum for justice, or from legally trained politicians who see no problem with restraining it or judges that appear unable to distinguish between the legal and the just.
        Were the law and the legal system simply under threat from the “government” we would simply change the government to end the threat, except that is not the case a change in governments has not had more than a superficial change in the way the government views the legal system.

      2. I think you’re reading far too much into what’s happening – and missing the reality as a result. This government IS attacking the legal system, because it sees the legal system as threatening its ability to do what it wants… and by ‘it’ I mean this particular government, which acts largely for one particular group of people rather than for ‘the people’ as a whole. Your nice theoretical argument collapses in the face of the nasty, messy, uncooperative reality of this current regime.

      3. I am curious, what is the difference between the government and parliament? Is this government lacking a popular democratic mandate for these acts? The parliament makes the legal system as that is its right and its duty. The legal system does not determine the political system, which the judges have always accepted and continue to accept.
        Are you saying that neither parliament nor the government can reform or act on the legal system? Or are you saying that they may only do that so long as it something you accept?
        What is the role of an election in such a situation as it would appear that the government cannot act on its electoral mandate if public opinion seem opposed, yet does that not suggest a defeat of the legal system and due process in that the legally elected government is legally empowered to act on its reform of the legal system?

      4. Given the unprecedented nature of the current coalition, it’s certainly arguable that they don’t have a mandate for this kind of reform – but even if they did, it would still be worth fighting. Even properly elected governments sometimes do appalling and misjudged things and it would be a dereliction of our duty as decent human beings not to fight them.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree! From personal experience I can say that most defence barristers I knew or came across were passionate about the criminal justice system and all that this entails. They didn’t do the job for any great financial reward but as a result of a belief that every one accused of a crime, no matter how heinous it might be, is entitled to a fair trial with the golden thread of their presumed innocence running throughout, unless and until proved otherwise. Defence Counsel do not decide upon the guilt or innocence of their clients they are there to ensure that their defence is pursued diligently and without fear, for you can be sure that the prosecution will be. We live in an adversarial system – ordinary members of the public who face trial are not advocates and few are confident or capable enough to stand trial alone – they need committed, trained and independent advocates to ensure that justice is done.

    I have personal experience (in fact far too many) where police, often with good but fundamentally misguided intentions, omitted, manipulated or added to evidence in the belief of an accused’s guilt and a desire to secure a conviction. Just as the media should act as a watchdog on the state I found defence barristers often fulfilled the role of the watchdog of the criminal justice system. Don’t get me wrong I believe that the guilty should be found so and punished accordingly and I have faith in the jury system to by and large do just that but I also believe that one guilty person being wrongfully acquitted is far better than an innocent person being wrongfully convicted. Defendants need advocates to robustly defend the fundamental rights of every one of them no matter what they are alleged to have done. Those advocates need to be able to work independently from any form of state control, manipulation and without fear. We have to have .faith in our criminal justice system for it to work. The governments moves will fundamentally undermine the system and ultimately our faith within it.

    So yes I agree that we must do everything we can to defend the independent criminal bar and preserve the jury system.

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