Posts tagged ‘law’

July 3, 2022

Needle by Patrice Lawrence

by Team Riverside
book cover of Needle

Paperback, Barrington Stoke, £7.99, out now

Charlene is a 15-year-old Black girl living in foster care.  She loves her younger sister Kandi, who she’s not seen for two years, and she loves knitting.  The craft relaxes her and keeps her grounded as her world changes around her over and over again.  But her foster mum’s adult son torments her by destroying the gift she’s knitting for her sister, and before she knows it she has retaliated with her knitting needle.

Needle is a gripping and revealing young adult novel, by Riverside favourite Patrice Lawrence.  I could absolutely see how Charlene got into the situations in the story, and why she reacted as she did.  While easy to read, with a compelling narrative, Needle raises critical issues around the criminalisation of young people, about childhood trauma, and about serious failings in our care and policing systems. 

Charlene is reflective and realistic on her lack of control over her own life: “Annie [her foster mother] agrees that me and Kandi should see each other, but she says we can’t always control the world.  Sometimes we just have to stand back and work out how to pull it back into a shape that’s good for us.  That’s easier for people like Annie than me.  She doesn’t have folks always shaping her world for her, then expecting her to smile and say it fits”.

The publisher has given three words on the book to describe the content – remorse, foster care, and justice.  They could easily have added policing, bereavement and trauma.  The brilliant cover made me want to read the book, not least the intriguing ‘sorrynotsorry’ motif.  Whether and when to apologise comes to be of critical importance throughout the story.  Perhaps you feel remorse or, conversely, don’t feel you’ve anything to be sorry for but those with power over you are urging you to play the game.

It’s relevant that Needle is dedicated to someone that the author describes as “bringing people together to change this”.  I hope that that this change can happen, and also that some of Lawrence’s readers will find themselves and their experiences here: it is vital that we can find our lives in books sometimes.

Attending the launch for Needle, I found out that it was inspired by Lawrence’s work with the Howard League for Penal Reform.  This would help explain just how believable the sections in the police station are.  On the excellent panel at the launch, several young people who had been in care generously shared their experiences, and all said that they had found the book very relatable.  I first came across the book when it was recommended by Charlie at the excellent Hastings Bookshop.

What stuck with me after reading Needle was the on and off role of so many adults in Charlene’s life.  Some listen, some don’t.  Some seem to understand, but more don’t (or won’t, or can’t).  A few are permanent though limited in what they can do to help, like Charlene’s auntie, or hostile, like Kandi’s dad.  Charlene herself is a constant, remaining funny and incisive throughout, even as she is clearly still a kid: “Sometimes I think my name is really Confidential instead of Charlene, because I hear that word so much.  Everything I say is supposed to be confidential, but somehow everyone still seems to know my business”.  In the end the questions of saying sorry, feeling remorse, playing the game and being true to yourself remain complex for Charlene. Outstanding.

Review by Bethan

June 1, 2022

Do Right and Fear No-One by Leslie Thomas QC

by Team Riverside
cover of Do Right and Fear No One

Hardback, Simon and Schuster, £20, out now

This autobiography of an outstanding civil rights lawyer, who has specialised in inquests, doubles as an incisive and detailed account of many of the most important human rights cases of the last 30 years.  Thomas always puts the people involved at the heart of his account.  I felt that the book, while being candid about his own story including his legal learning curves and sometime errors, was an opportunity for him to foreground the lives of those whose stories are often ignored.

This is the story of a South London working class Black man who gets to the top of his profession doing cutting edge legal work.  Much of Thomas’s early life was lived in Battersea, Clapham and Balham, and Riverside readers will find many places they know.  As a Queen’s Counsel (senior barrister) Leslie Thomas has represented bereaved families in inquests in many deaths in custody and police shootings.  His work includes landmark cases such as those of Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan.  He has also played a critical part in legal examinations of disasters including such as the Grenfell Tower fire and Hillsborough, as well as developing a practice in the Caribbean, and all of this work is discussed in detail.  The chapter dealing with the second inquest into the New Cross Fire, moving in itself, also shows a moment of revelation for Thomas: “…it made me realise that what mattered wasn’t the lawyers’ political spin on the case, which is sometimes very easy to do, but what was best for the clients”.

One of the things I liked most about Do Right and Fear No One was its accessibility.  Areas that may be unfamiliar to readers, such as what the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights are and how they apply to real life, or how inquests work and what they are for, are explained clearly and concisely without this feeling patronising.  I found this so useful.  Demystifying the law is vital, particularly areas that people may feel no connection with until they erupt into their own lives – for example when they suddenly have to attend an inquest for someone close to them.

Thomas gives due credit to families, colleagues and others who he has worked alongside, placing his legal work in context.  For anyone who visited the outstanding ICA exhibition War Inna Babylon – the Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights last year, Do Right and Fear No-one will be an essential read (see https://www.ica.art/exhibitions/war-inna-babylon). 

Thomas’s mother Pearl sounds like a truly remarkable woman, working all hours and supporting her children to do their best.  Talking about his father Godfrey, who he had a difficult relationship with at times, his account reminded me at times of David Harewood’s story in Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/david-harewood/maybe-i-dont-belong-here/9781529064131).  Both men reflect on the racism their fathers faced, and the long-lasting effects this had on their health, especially in later life.

My one criticism of the book is that the publisher did not include an index.  This detailed book should be widely read and easily searchable.  Publisher: please commission an index for the paperback.  If anyone needs convincing of why indexes are great, see my review of Dennis Duncan’s excellent book on just this subject.

On a lighter note, I really liked Thomas noting that he used to talk fast “as South Londoners do” – this is definitely true of me.  This is a great read.

Review by Bethan

October 17, 2018

Eve was Shamed – How British Justice is Failing Women by Helena Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto & Windus, £20, published 11 October 2018Helena Kennedy EVE WAS SHAMED

Eve was Shamed is a timely and comprehensive update on women as they engage with the UK’s criminal justice system, from a legendary feminist human rights lawyer.  The depth of her experience over years of legal practice and activism makes this a must-read. You don’t have to agree with everything she says to benefit from her thoughtful and erudite commentary.

17 years after I first read her classic book on women and the law Eve was Framed, Eve was Shamed shows where we have made progress and where so much remains to be done.  Her account includes experiences of women lawyers, survivors of domestic or sexual violence, prisoners, judges, and others.  She finds that “despite the dramatic changes which have taken place in women’s lives over the last four decades, women are still facing iniquitous judgements and injustice within the legal system.  All the legal reforms have produced only marginal advances”.  (p. 317)

Kennedy’s dual commitment to feminism and to human rights is particularly interesting.  Her values inform her approach to her work, including her analysis of difficult or controversial situations in public life.  She recounts occasions when this has led to conflict with people she has been allies with, and it is evident that she values the process of discussion and exchange that leads to resolution, even where this is uncomfortable or challenging.  She notes: “feminism is about justice if it is about anything, and that means for men as well as women.  Justice for women is not secured by reducing justice for men.” (p. 324)

She has lost none of her passion or commitment on the things that matter to her, making her a useful model for how to survive and remain effective during bleak times.  Her considered solutions to problems are offered throughout, and this means that despite the subject matter you feel that real change is possible.  Jacky Fleming’s inspirational cartoon remains helpful (see https://www.jackyfleming.co.uk/product/never-give-up/).

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Contraband, £8.99, out nowgraeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-project

This Booker-longlisted novel is the story of a 17 year old boy facing the death penalty for a triple murder committed in a remote village in the Scottish highlands.  It is 1869, and Roderick Macrae is the son of a crofter who is living in a feudal society.  His Bloody Project is presented like a true crime story, with an account by the killer of what happened and documents from other parties involved.  The novel is introduced by the author, in his own name, suggesting that Roderick Macrae was a relative of his.  You have to bring your brain to this collection of purported primary sources, and the main question you have to answer is not whether Macrae committed the crime, which he admits, but whether he was mad at the time.  If it could be proved that he was insane, he might avoid the otherwise inevitable death penalty.

What has happened to Macrae that may have led to this point?  Through his partial account we hear of brutality, unfairness, bereavement and extreme poverty.  As a study in the abuse of power, and the impunity that goes with it, the book is excellent (to be more specific would be to risk spoilers).  The language used by every character in the documents is evocative and convincing – for example, Macrae calls winter in the village the ‘black months’ and summer the ‘yellow months’.

His Bloody Project grips tighter and tighter as the pages run out.  As we find out more about the murders and the killer, we inevitably think more about how we test whether a defendant was insane or not, an issue as present today as in 1869.  Equally relevant now, is the question – when you are subject to the law but the law does not protect you when you need it, can the society you live in really be said to be based on the rule of law?

Review by Bethan

October 19, 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, by Thomas Grant

by Team Riverside

John Murray, out now, £25

A child of the Bloomsbury group, Jeremy Hutchinson became a leading QC at the criminal bar in postwar Britain. Fellow lawyer Thomas Grant has written Hutchinson’s life in an unusual style – a shortish biographical sketch, followed by in depth accounts of Hutchinson’s most famous cases. This approach successfully illuminates not only a well-spent life, but alsThomas Grant JEREMY HUTCHINSON'S CASE HISTORIESo the contribution of an exceptional advocate at pivotal moments of change in British social and cultural history.

As a lawyer who often defended the unpopular or those in conflict with the establishment, much of his work concerned freedom of expression. Obscenity trials feature – he represented Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial as well as the National Theatre concerning their production of The Romans in Britain. He also defended the rights of journalists Duncan Campbell and Jonathan Aitken when they were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and also represented the notorious cold war spy George Blake. The movement towards a more open and freer society is traced through Grant’s well drawn studies.

Hutchinson emerges not only as a great advocate, but as a genial and thoughtful man. Now 100, his postscript to the book shows him to be as committed to the principle of access to justice as ever: “When at long last in 1950 the Legal Aid Act was passed, the idea was that everyone should be able to obtain legal advice if unable to pay for it because, after health, the most important element in a civilised society is the ability of every citizen to assert and protect these rights: in other words a ‘national legal service’.” He notes that “real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen”. Recommended.

Review by Bethan