A Suffolk barrister’s insight to our justice system
‘The trickle down of the law affects all of us and we take it for granted. I worry we forget how important it is to have the power to hold our government to account’
“Inever thought I was clever enough or well-connected enough to be a barrister,” says Sarah Langford. “I thought you had to have a double first from Oxbridge and a High Court judge as your godfather. So I had written it off for a career and studied instead for an English degree.”
Graduating just shy of a first, but feeling ill-equipped for life as a lawyer, Sarah still found herself drawn to the drama and the unpredictability of the courtroom. She sought secretarial work in solicitors’ offices and took an evening job waiting tables, and serving behind a bar, just to be among the barristers who were staying at a local pub during their trials. “I found they were normal people,” she says. “They were just like me.”
In fact, her experience of life, her grounded upbringing and her love of storytelling make her well-equipped for the role. “You need to be able to talk to people and to empathise, because you have to be able to tell your client’s story. You need to be able to put yourself in their shoes, and to encourage the jury to do so too.” After qualifying and spending nearly 10 years practising criminal and family law, Sarah has taken time out to have children. This has given her an opportunity to reflect on what she has learned and how the profession has changed her.
In Your Defence presents 11 case studies, compelling, fictionalised accounts of real cases, stories of burglary, children taken into care, kidnapping, sexual indiscretion, warring parents, drug-dealing. While presenting a troubled and darker side of human nature, the book is uplifting and inspiring, not least for its insight to Sarah’s character, revealing compassion for her clients and passion for the legal system.
“I wanted to let people into the law and the courtroom, giving them a better understanding of how the system works. I had to find stories which would allow me to open up different areas of the law and present some of the people caught up in it.”
Sarah hopes that, as a result, people might be encouraged to challenge newspaper headlines that urge us to subscribe to one opinion or another, and to think around the situations being reported. “The facts may be immovable, but there will be a context and a circumstance which will make you feel differently about a person or a situation. And I hope through reading this book people might also have a greater appreciation of the justice system.
“The trickle down of the law affects all of us and we take it for granted. I worry we forget how important it is to have the power to hold our government to account, to be able to take someone to court if they have done something wrong, to stand before a judge and know they haven’t been bribed, aren’t political, and will look at the facts and apply the law. If you took away our faith in the rule of law, the impact across the whole of life would be profound.”
Sarah is considering returning to the Bar in a few months’ time, but is nervous about how she will find returning to this challenging role. “When I started out I was shocked, daily, by the cases I had to read but I became acclimatised. Because I’ve had respite from it, I wonder whether I’ve let my guard fall and softened.”
It will also mean a move away from Suffolk. She and her husband, former Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, renovated a cottage outside Debenham, near his parents, and have been living there with their two young sons since Ben lost his seat, and his London home, in the general election last year. Sarah has enjoyed rural life and recalls childhood days at her grandparents’ Hampshire farm.
“I think if you’ve been brought up with a love of the countryside, there is always that yearning for it. And Debenham is really wonderful – an easy village to love.”
In Your Defence is published by Doubleday