Book Review: In Your Defence by Sarah Langford

In Your Defence: True Stories of Life and Law (2018)

Sarah Langford is a barrister, practicing primarily in criminal and family law. She qualified in 2005 and works in London and around the country. Her first degree was taken in English at the University of West England, following which she took a law conversion course. She was awarded a scholarship with Gray's Inn of Court, before training and qualifying as a barrister.

In Your Defence could be compared with the Secret Barrister's Stories of the Law and How it is Broken. It highlights the way our justice system is crumbling and failing real people as a result of long-term funding cuts. What makes In Your Defence different, is that it focuses on 11 cases which, according to Langford, tell the stories of eleven people whose lives "were changed by the law, for better or for worse, for ever". It centres on the stories of these people and families.

Langford sets out busting myths about the legal system and who it involves. For me, this was one of the highlights of the book. Langford has led a successful career as a barrister turned author and the route she took to get there was not conventional. She is not part of the Oxbridge elite; she did an English degree at UWE; worked as a barmaid and legal clerk before doing her conversion. Throughout, she speaks of how the experience she gained through taking this route (as well as doing the job itself, of course) taught her skills beyond what law school ever could have. Those of us who have taken a law degree may know the law of the land, about carbolic smoke balls and snails in the bottom of ginger beer. But what it doesn't teach is "how to identity mental health problems, victims of domestic abuse, alcohol and drug addictions....who might...go home and try to end their life". This human side of the law is one often overlooked. The law is cold and hard and impenetrable to many, but Langford does an exceptional job of reminding us that what it is really about is people.

Among the chapters are a couple of particularly striking ones about how women are treated, and how the law can have such a significant impact on their lives. There is Saba whose abusive husband abducts her daughter. Maggie who is a young mum whose first child was taken from her, but she chooses to fight to keep her second. The chapter I found the most interesting from a law perspective was that of Rita, which raises issues around spouses and civil partners, and how two people bound in this way are viewed, in many circumstances, as one. The chapter deals in particular with conspiracy, and how Rita's husband's crime of burglary impacts her in ways she did not expect.

The book is fast-paced and easy to read despite the often hard-hitting subject matter. It deals with homosexuality, child arrangement orders, police brutality, paedophilia, suicide, and so much more. Less anger-inducing than the book in our previous review, in In Your Defence , Langford still questions a system where a barrister may be considered a “hired mouthpiece”, a “legitimate voyeur” or, “an agent and instrument not of the law but of revenge and spite”, and how she may or may not be complicit in its failures. It's definitely worth a read.

By Lauren Findler

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