Passing The Brief: Sarah Vine interviews Julia Smart

Interviewee turns interviewer in the new Counsel series Passing the Brief. Here Sarah Vine spends some time bathing in the reflected glory of The Lawyer 2018 Barrister of the Year, Julia Smart


 

Julia Smart and I meet over the phone. We think we might have bumped into one another at court, and probably the women’s robing room at Inner London Crown Court (time spent in which, we can reliably inform the gentlemen of our profession, is the most fun you can have in what everyone agrees is the architectural representation of abandoned hope). In our interview, we cover the unintended consequences of years of attrition to the criminal justice system (CJS), the prevalence and grip of imposter syndrome, the mental health of the Bar, the institutional bias of the police, misogyny and the law, the rise of populism and judicial tattoos.

We also talked about Liam Allan.

SV: This year has seen an unusually high profile given to your work. You have represented two men, in entirely unrelated cases, both of whose innocence was demonstrable in material in the possession of the police, and which could easily have remained concealed with very alarming consequences. So is it just you?

JS: [Hollow laugh] If only. I don’t know anyone at the criminal Bar who looked at those cases [Liam Allan and Clive Steer] as isolated examples. I was astonished at the media interest in Liam Allan’s story because we are all so used to how sub-standard everything now is. I suspect that, because it’s happened gradually, we just haven’t noticed how much worse everything has got.

SV: What don’t the public see in the CJS that they need to see most urgently?

JS: How last minute everything is. It is unusual for anything to be done in time, at least in the sense of allowing everyone time to absorb the relevant information.

SV: Do you think there was any danger in the initial CPS disclosure review being confined to serious sex cases?

JS: Possibly, but I think there was also a clear advantage to it; these investigations are relatively well resourced and so the attention to the disclosure failures in an area where people’s expectations were higher helped to demonstrate just how threadbare the entire system is. If this is how a rape case is dealt with, what chance is there for the proper consideration of disclosure in less serious offences?

SV: Gloriously – and quite rightly – you are now the poster girl for the difference a good lawyer can make to the justice of a case. Have you ever had the experience of seeing a client you believe is innocent convicted, and with no prospect of appeal to be seen?

JS: Oh yes.

SV: It’s the worst, isn’t it?

JS: Absolutely. It haunts me. [Things take a turn for the dark at this point so, to spare the reader the anguish of our exchange, we’ll skip to the bit about Julia being suddenly all over the telly.]

SV: How was it?

JS: I’d always had an instinctive aversion to That Kind Of Thing. I assumed I’d have no aptitude for it but when the Allan case generated so much interest, and so suddenly, I was being called by people wanting to interview me. And I just thought ‘why not?’ [This was not the phrase that Julia used, but propriety forbids.] The next thing I knew, I was in a cab to the Channel 4 News studio. Who knew? Turns out I loved it.

SV: I assumed you were completely habituated to being filmed. You’re a natural.

JS: Thank you. *Pause.* You’re right, though – I am. [There’s not an ounce of braggadocio to this observation; it is entirely fair. Nobody at the Bar believes anyone else’s displays of modesty anyway, so quite why there is so powerful a cultural imperative to disavow our most undeniable gifts remains a mystery. It might be some kind of masonic pact between privately educated men, the idea that there will always be someone else to plead your cause, but it seldom works for women. So I am more than a little pleased to hear JS confess that she is really not bad at being on the TV.]

SV: Was there anything about the coverage that annoyed you, apart from being described as a ‘female barrister’ [correct term: ‘barrister’]?

JS: I was pleasantly surprised, although my husband was less than impressed with the Daily Mail’s description of him being asleep at 10pm before I started work on the phone download in Allan, since he was also up late working on his own trial.

SV: Who would be your Fantasy Justice Secretary?

JS: A lawyer, please. Secret Barrister, actually. [We didn’t resolve the question of whether SB should remain anonymous in those circumstances or, if so, to what extent.]

SV: If you were given charge of the CJS, what changes would you make to improve the retention of women at the Bar?

JS: Make childcare tax-deductible, make the internal publication of receipts compulsory within chambers, return to the original sitting hours of 10.30am–4.00pm and pay people for reading unused material.

SV: Are the Criminal Procedure Rules: (i) an ideological shift in perspective, enjoining judges to relinquish a qualitative assessment in favour of a quantitative approach to criminal cases; (ii) a well-intentioned attempt to streamline criminal justice; (iii) the best thing ever to come out of the Royal Courts of Justice; or (iv) a triumph of optimism over experience.

JS: I’m going to say (iv).

SV: Really?

JS: This is being published, right?

SV: Fair enough.

SV: Which is worse – a bloody awful opponent, or a bloody awful judge?

JS: Whichever one you happen to have at the time. [Disappointingly, Julia will not endorse my proposal that all members of the judiciary should be required to have a tattoo on their hands, something helpful and pithy like ‘Human memory is fragile and flattery intoxicating; you were never that great in practice,’ so instead I ask my final, and most important question. The one to which everyone wants the answer.]

SV: Who has been the best CBA Wellbeing Director?

JS: I think we should definitely have one.

SV: [In a very small voice] Oh.

Up next: Julia Smart interviews Martha Cover, Legal Aid Barrister of the Year 2018.

Sarah Vine is a barrister at Doughty Street and the first Wellbeing Director of the Criminal Bar Association.

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Sarah Vine

Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and Wellbeing Director of the Criminal Bar Association