“There are plenty of other practising lawyers who put their names to their opinions. Why should you be different?”

This, entirely fair, question has been put to me in several interviews I have given in the run-up to the release of my book. It often tops or tails chains of correspondence between my publicist and intrigued media outlets, and has in some cases proved a stumbling block for those displeased with my response and insistent on my revealing my wholly uninteresting real self as a precursor to the grant of publicity.

But despite its ubiquity, I have still not yet properly got a handle on answering the question. At least not as succinctly and pithily as I would like. This is almost certainly a fault of my own solipsism; of my failure to appreciate that just because I instinctively know why anonymity (or pseudonymity, as I suppose it is) is so important to me, it is not necessarily self-evident to others. No doubt I haven’t properly considered how best to explain to an understandably curious audience why, unlike other barristers brave enough to speak out under their real identity, I insist on keeping the mask on. Why, as it is properly wondered, I should be different.

So today, the date of publication of my first pseudonymous book, seems as good a time as any to try to explain.

Put simply, anonymity buys me the ability to speak plainly, frankly and without fear or favour about the problems that I see in the criminal justice system, in a way that I don’t think I could under my real name. It respects and protects the identity and privacy of the individuals concerned where I draw on real-life examples of cases from professional experience, none of whom have asked for the attention that I might otherwise unwittingly direct their way. And it protects, albeit not inures, against any perception that I am tempering or modifying my opinions out of a desire to preserve my professional reputation or my income stream. I have no need to pull punches or defer to authority when mounting my high horse to decry the ruin of criminal justice, nor do my colleagues or chambers have to fear or suffer the consequences of my chippy activism. By the same token, when I speak out in partial defence of the system – for example, to stand up for a judge being unfairly demonised in the tabloids – it is clear (I hope) that I do so without a dog in the fight. There is no benefit to me in adopting any particular stance on any given issue. I will not be a Secret QC on the back of my writing, and I have even fewer pretensions at becoming The Secret Judge. When I cheer the valiant, Sisyphean efforts of overworked CPS caseworkers or underpaid defence solicitors, I do so not in the hope of sourcing sympathetic new instructions, but because they damn well deserve the praise.

My hope is that anonymity preserves, even bolsters, my independence in a way that I think is difficult to achieve writing under one’s real byline. Even if you are as scrupulously fair and even-handed as most named legal commentators undoubtedly are, treading onto any politically sensitive topic forces them to contend in the first instance with a barrage of irrelevant and groundless accusations of self-interest, bias or unchecked privilege. By taking my identity off the table, I hope to keep the focus on the issues, rather than the speaker. I am exactly what I say on the tin – a jobbing junior barrister; nobody that anyone will have heard of, certainly not (as I’ve heard suggested) Keir Starmer (!), nor indeed anyone with any sort of public profile. And that – my mundane existence as a practising criminal barrister – is the only fact which I think a reader requires to engage with what I write. Most people who interact seem to accept that premise; that the only information of relevance is that I am a junior barrister who specialises in criminal law, and therefore have a vague grasp on the subject matter I’m dealing with. Being able to identify and attach a non-descript name and face to my posturing will not assist anybody’s understanding of the arguments I offer or the opinions I spout. If the former are misguided or the latter half-baked, they will fall on their demerits, rather than crumble under the weight of bogus assumptions.

More than this, anonymity allows me to discuss cases handled and things seen and heard with a frankness which I fervently hope is helpful to a non-legal audience. When asked how it feels to defend an alleged paedophile in whose guilt you secretly believe, I don’t have to rely on the abstract; I can speak openly from personal experience to demystify and discuss the issues raised by that question, without any fear of the involved parties being identified. I can walk a lay reader through the criminal process, describing the flaws and pitfalls by reference to things I have seen, without feeling obliged to sugar coat or descend into generalities. The driving purpose behind this blog and the book is to try to open up the dusty legal system to the public who owns it. Anonymity, when I was starting out three years ago, struck me as the simplest and easiest way to achieve this.

And finally, the last reason I offer up is perhaps, to me, the most immediately important. My desire, from the day I wrote my first blogpost, has been and remains simple: to be able to continue to practise in a job which, for all its frustrations, I love, while drawing attention to the problems in the system. This arrangement allows me to do just that. While I would hope that, in the event of my unmasking, there would be sufficient recognition of my good intentions to allow me to continue to practise, it would be naive to suppose that I could carry on writing as well. At least one would have to fall. I would, in reality, either slink back with sun-burned wings into a muted practice; or walk away from the Bar and contemplate another life altogether. That is a choice which I know that ultimately I may be forced to make. But it’s not one I want to. Not while I still hope I have a contribution to offer to both.

thesecretbarrister Contemplations

26 Replies

  1. I never questioned the wisdom of your wish to remain anonymous, for the most important reason of all – you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do your job in court without being sidelined by comments or getting pulled up about something you once wrote. Having somehow been thrown into the limelight with subsequent rather high profile, remaining anonymous allows you to discuss important work-related issues *outside* your working hours, so you can fully devote your time and attention to whatever you’re doing *during* your working hours, without the danger of derailment, as there will always be smart asses who can’t resist a (well-intended) poke. 🙂

  2. Thank you.  You make me remember why I was a lawyer.  Good luck, and yes to the Secret QC 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  3. It’s an interesting one this. I’m broadly persuaded (an analogue would be DC Horton’s blog). I’m a little bit sceptical one on point: sometimes you will have a dog in the fight and we’re a bit less likely to realise that if we do not know your identity; but in the scheme of things I am not worried about that with the kinds of things you blog about. There is an irony of course in lifting the lid on a system which is too closed through anonymity. But some ironies are meant to be delicious.

    I look forward to reading the book. I may then start a blog called the secret reviewer 😉

  4. Your point about confidentiality is well made. As for your impartiallity, that’s something that people will decide for themselves, using their own experience as a kind of yardstick. Inevitably, they will have their own biases and – even if you are completely even handed.

  5. Absolutely agree (but then, I was once a barrister, so likely would!). Long may you continue to be able to write this way.

  6. I attended newton aycliffe Magistrates Court som years ago. An officious security guard demanded to know my name. Ditto one of the office staff, in similar vein. Shackles raised I refused to provide it and stated that I was obliged to give it to the court and not necessarily to others. Complaint was made against me which was upheld. I was ordered to pay 1600 quid costs. The price of anonymity? Or the cost of adhering to principle against bullying bureaucrats and jobsworths? You decide.. ..

  7. “not (as I’ve heard suggested) Keir Starmer (!)”

    Those suggesting that can’t be paying attention you seem to hold positions oposed to some of the things he was in favour of as head ofvthe COS.

  8. So. No point in asking you to sign the book with a brief dedication?

  9. I hope you retain anonymity for as long as you wish to. I learn a great deal from your writings and comments particularly on current cases/verdicts/proceedings. Guid luck with the book and Lang may you continue to inform.

  10. I’m waiting patiently for the (oxymoronic) Secret Master of the Rolls… 🙄

  11. Your identity will be found out eventually, as you seem to understand. The more earnestly and logically thought out your position, paradoxically the more people will see it as a target for destruction. The inevitability of this is an aspect of the psyche that I doubt I will ever fully comprehend.

    Just make sure you have a plan for when it happens. I mean, you’re a lawyer, I’m sure planning is much more your forté than the average person’s and I probably didn’t need to say this, but still.

  12. As a person with little or no legal education. I find your tweets & blogs very informative & has often changed my mind on things because of how well you’ve explained the legal aspects of certain cases.
    Please continue to comment, tweet, blog & write books.

  13. This reminds me greatly of the discussions around the anonymity/identity of the late and much lamented author of the Magistrate’s Blog, whose premature death meant that his identity finally became known to his many thousands of loyal readers as the long-serving magistrate and (several times) Chair of his local Bench, Richard Bristow (http://magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk).

    As a serving JP, the reasons he gave were in many respects analogous to yours, and in some respects even more compelling (although I accept and acknowledge the force of your own case). His anonymity allowed him to illustrate some of the more egregious failing of the Courts’ Service (sic), and the shambles generated by successive “reforms”. He spoke up courageously and with concrete examples about the cuts to legal aid, the closure of courts, and the culling of the CPS long before most practising lawyers found their courage.

    Apart from one BBC article that identified him, and landed him in hot water with the judicial authorities, everyone else who knew respected and complied with his desire for anonymity.

    He would have defended you to the hilt (‘though your occasional splenetic and always unsubstantiated swipes at magistrates irked him greatly).

    RIP, Richard “Bystander” Bristow: a man who did more to raise understanding and awareness of the magistracy not only in the public eye, but in the media, the political class and even amongst the often startlingly ill-informed legal profession than anyone else in the modern era.

    On top of everything, he was a warm, considerate and caring man, who showed in person how a lay bench can add real value to the justice system by remaining rooted in reality, and avoiding the ever present traps of vested interests and the temptation for self-aggrandisement found in the professional judiciary.

    1. Mr Bristow’s identity was known for some time before his sad demise. He referred to a court clerk and her liking for jammy dodgers. That court clerk was well-known for that liking by all those who frequented Uxbridge Magistrates Court. Other little details like mention of his travelling time to court gave the game away.

    2. I have just come across this. Richard was my dad, and his blog meant a huge amount to him. I wish he could read this tribute. Thank you.

  14. Of course there were those who knew (especially in and around his home court, and amongst his fellow magistrates), just as there are some who know the Secret Barrister’s identity, but they always respected Richard’s request that he be allowed to remain publicly anonymous, and not just because of the Lord Chief’s injunctions on the subject of members of the judiciary and their use of social media.

  15. For these interested in the law on this question, see [2017] J Media Law 189.

  16. The book was an eye-opener. It took me a long time to finish as it was so depressing, and lord knows the UK is not short of things to be depressed about at the moment. But if one has to understand things before voting responsibly or, heaven forfend, finding oneself suddenly caught up in the justice system, then it was and is a hugely important contribution. Also, so wonderfully well written that I can’t help wondering if some readers may immediately recognise the author (or authors, if, as I wondered may be the case, there just might be more than one).

    The anonymity question is hugely problematic given what we see with political astroturfing but it surely has its place, and much tradition, in challenge systems from within that are in need of reform. Thanks for your good work and for the humanity which the book radiates.

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