wed 26/02/2020

Sarah Langford: In Your Defence review - messy lives | reviews, news & interviews

Sarah Langford: In Your Defence review - messy lives

Sarah Langford: In Your Defence review - messy lives

A behind-the-scenes peek at the theatre of the law

Sarah Langford: instrument of the law© Penguin Random House

When Sarah Langford goes to work, she puts on warpaint and wig and acts. But she is not an actor. She defends those who might or might not be guilty of the crimes with with they’ve been charged, or she acts on behalf of those bringing prosecutions who may or may not be telling the truth. 

But often it's more complicated; she is no mere janissary. In Your Defence is her memoir, not only of the cases she has worked on (anonymised, of course), but also of how they have changed her; because it is not just rights and wrongs she deals with every day  that is the law in abstract. No. It is the ambiguities, difficulties, fears and loopholes of compassion that make up the texture of her professional life.

Take Peter  a mildly spoken, decorous, manipulative young man whose forays into child sex abuse remained gratefully out of sight, or Dominic  the young man with a handful of convictions under his belt and a sense of conviction to boot, who owns up to what he’s caught doing but refuses to plead guilty to what he’s not done. In each chapter, another life dedicated to the clarification of a legal principle.

Sarah LangfordBut the law itself cannot act and there are moving accounts of people being given second chances in recognition that their behaviour derives from their circumstances. One of the most moving accounts is of Maggie, a mother at risk of having her child taken away. It is the fortuitous appearance of the clinical psychologist Dr Dymphna who puts into perspective the emotional and financial cost of fostering a child. Then there is Jude, a twelve year old and another victim of circumstance who “could not really remember a time that his parents had not been at court.” Abnormally for such a young client, Langford represents him directly in an especially toxic and long-winded case over parental custody – is his strangely adult presentation derived from living with his father or armour from the rounds of courts that have punctuated his life already?

Langford also breathes life into the ritual of the courts, the personalities who enact the law and the relationships that form between barristers – combative, respectful, critical  the vicissitudes of the court professionals. She takes us into the robing room and the pre-court performative politics that take place there, and she explains why, in the case of one client, she keeps on her wig and gown when visiting him in the cells having been found guilty. In some way it’s terrifying that such arbitrariness can govern lives to such an extent. On the other hand, it means the judges and lawyers involved in the case are still human.

In every word there is a care for stories and a people. Langford, like all barristers, is a born story-teller with deep respect for what the legal system can and should do: take the weight from victims’ shoulders and take it on as its own. She is also committed to showing how legal decisions are instants in time  they can mark a turning point in people’s lives but can’t lives those lives for them. Every judgement carries with it some form of risk. And acknowledging that, for Langford, is not a matter of pretence.


It is the ambiguities, difficulties, fears and loopholes of compassion that make up the texture of her professional life


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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