What would the impact of exposure be? “I would hope that if it came out, the institutions that are criticised would recognise that it comes from a place of good faith — that it’s not an attempt to misrepresent or do down the system for the sake of advancing my own name or to get a book out there, but that it’s something I think needed to be said. And so I hope the professional consequences wouldn’t be the worst-case scenarios that go through your head when you’re writing it — thinking, ‘Oh gosh, will I never work again?’ ”
But the SB admits that “in reality I wouldn’t be able to keep practising and writing... I would inevitably feel compromised in the writing and would either have to jack that in altogether or leave the Bar, neither of which I want to do.”
A waiter arrives with our burgers, which are wrapped in paper and served, along with the fries, in a plastic basket, the vessel of choice for today’s fast-food hipster outlet.
Anyone with a prominent online profile and a willingness to take on Britain’s press, politicians and Twitterati has to enjoy the whiff of cordite, and on occasions the SB has been at the centre of blazing rows. Not everyone is inclined to take a dispassionate view of the legal reasoning behind, say, the parole board’s decision this year to release John Worboys, the serial “black cab rapist”. The journalist and feminist campaigner Julie Bindel called the SB an “arrogant cocking crashing bore” for posts on the issue that confined themselves to patiently explaining the process. (Worboys’ release was later rescinded.)
Only a few days before our lunch the SB had exchanged fire with Liz Wheeler, a conservative American talk-show host. Wheeler had waded into the debate over the treatment of Alfie Evans, the little boy who died of a degenerative neurological condition after spending more than a year in hospital as his parents fought a long legal battle with their son’s doctors. Wheeler opened by accusing the British government of murdering Alfie; the SB responded by branding her a “thundering halfwit”. Back came Wheeler, accusing the SB of being “willing to do battle behind the anonymity of the keyboard, but afraid to defend your views on TV”.
Is there any point to that kind of Twitter war? “I accept it probably came across in places as snarky and confrontational but some people you’re not going to win round, so the best I can do is put the facts in a way that is going to appeal to other people... I don’t have any regrets — though it was not an easy four or five days trying to scroll through notifications from everyone in the Deep South telling me that I was a baby-killer.”
A few days before our lunch, the SB canvassed views from readers of the book on what they regarded as its most shocking revelation. The verdict was the “innocence tax” — the often enormous legal costs for those accused of a crime who do not qualify for legal aid but who, if exonerated, are denied compensation thanks to restrictions imposed in 2013.
A recent case in point concerned a retired doctor who had been falsely accused of being part of a paedophile ring. Even though the case against him had collapsed, the doctor was told at the end of April that he would not be reimbursed for the £94,000 — the majority of his savings — he had spent on his defence. (The alternative for anyone whose income is higher than the legal aid threshold is to represent themselves in court, which barristers say is as advisable as performing your own heart surgery.)
The innocence tax, says the SB, is a policy “so perverse you wonder how it got on to the statute books without there being front pages saying, ‘This is insane.’ But it did. And part of the fault is ours, the profession, because although we complained as we always do, I think we should have shouted louder.”
This comes up again and again: if lawyers had done a better job of mounting their own defence, perhaps they would not now be revolting against a system that holds itself up to the world as a model of criminal justice. In 2016, a committee of MPs said that a 26 per cent cut in spending over the previous five years had left criminal justice at breaking point. Barristers say their fees for legal work have fallen by 40 per cent during the past two decades. A recent Bar Council survey found that 62 per cent of criminal barristers work at least one day a week unpaid, while more than a third are thinking of quitting.
So if the pay is lousy, the conditions miserable, the infrastructure coming apart at the seams and the tabloid vitriol unceasing, why not pack it in?
Part of it is the love of courtroom drama. “You will not find a criminal barrister who was not in am dram... If you like theatre, if you like attention, then you go to the Bar if you can’t cut it as an actor.”
But there is the sense of a calling, too. “The joy is that you get to match that with something you feel is important,” says the SB. “While my book is capable of being interpreted as a misery memoir, there’s an awful lot of satisfaction on the days when things go well. It would just be nice to have more of them.”
Burgers demolished, we step back out into the bright sunshine to get on with the day. We shake hands again and the SB heads north in the direction of Baker Street. I watch for a second, hoping for a puff of smoke and a sudden vanishing act — or at the very least a change of costume behind a phone box. But the SB simply walks on, bag on one shoulder, into the crowds and back to anonymity.