Newspapers are dying but we live in a golden age of journalism. Writers of every political shade such as Boris Johnson, Matthew Parris, David Aaronovitch, Douglas Murray, Nick Cohen, George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee are daily turning out copy that is by turns hilarious, compassionate, persuasive, acerbic, astute, angry and exasperating. And you could probably add another twenty-five names at least to that list: journalists that you would want to read no matter what they were writing about.
Such Premier League journalists are for everyone. More specialist tastes are catered for ever more often on the large numbers of specialist blogs.
Many of these are political. Iain Dale, for example is required reading for Conservatives and other parties have their own gurus and soothsayers.
The climate change debate has been a particularly fruitful area for bloggers. The magisterially sceptical US site Watts Up With That and its more rumbustious British equivalent, Bishop Hill, compete with extraordinary vigour against the equally robust Real Climate, while the indefatigable Judith Curry is a rare and very perceptive female voice amongst the bearded weathermen who tend to enjoy the mathematical minutiae every bit as much as the conspiracy theories and email skulduggery.
British legal bloggers tend to be rather more polite and gentle. Nevertheless there are some cracking legal blogs around, so for anyone who is interested here is my guide to the best of them. I should apologise in advance: this is certainly not a comprehensive list, simply some that I have found to be good reading, well-informed and well written. If your favourite blog is not in it, it doesn’t mean that I think it’s no good. It’s more likely that I probably haven’t got around to reading it yet.
I should say that many solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers now produce their own blogs. There are some good ones, but quite a number are deadly dull and more likely to repel than to attract custom. Some of the blogs below are written with an obvious commercial motive – and there is nothing wrong with that, but many appear to be wholly independent, individual efforts.
One has to start with Jack of Kent, otherwise known as David Allen Green a solicitor and barrister in his early 40s working for Preiskel & Co, which I suppose could be described – in fact it describes itself, slightly cringily – as a “boutique” media law firm. How Mr Green ever finds time to look after his conventional legal practice beats me because not only journalism and blog posts, but also tweets seem to flow from him day and night. As a result he has an extraordinary 46,000 Twitter followers. He writes clearly and seriously about any number of legal matters. His own blog seems to be somewhat dormant these days and he has recently started writing – perhaps “been snapped up” should be the expression – for the Financial Times. Politically he is moderately left-leaning, but not so as to frighten the horses. In 2012 he was rated the 69th most influential man in Britain (down 5 places from 2011) by GQ magazine, not least for his part in exposing the plagiarism of the ghastly and absurd former Independent columnist Johann Hari.
Serious is not the word that springs to mind to describe.Legal Cheek In the words of editor – the barrister and journalist Alex Aldridge – “Legal Cheek reports daily on the colourful goings-on in the legal world to bring you the most interesting legal news and social media tittle tattle.” An anonymous commenter, rather rudely and a little illiterately, described it as: “just a site for stories which no other website writes…. Their so called editors and contributors scour the world for things which can be made into a legal related article so that they can big up their own egos ….”
It was on Legal Cheek that I learnt that the splendid Inner Temple gentlemen’s cloakrooms are considered one of London’s hottest cottaging sites, something that would no doubt startle and alarm the few crusty traditionalists that still frequent them if they can get past the “cute barristers’ clerks in suits, workmen employed by the Inn … students using the library and a few horny lawyers.”
There seems, incidentally, to be little love lost between Legal Cheek and Jack of Kent: last year the former accused the latter of “glugging champagne in a celebrity jacuzzi.” Legal aid lawyers sipping tea in their lukewarm baths will be appropriately envious.
One of the most long-standing and respectable bloggers is Charon QC. Confusingly, he is not called Charon and he is not a QC. His real name is Mike Semple Piggot and he is, or possibly was, a law teacher. In fact he is a great deal more than a teacher: he was one of the joint founders of BPP Law School, now one of the top legal and accountancy training establishments and which was recently granted University status. He is also the author of a number of textbooks. His blog is often interesting but to my thinking it can sometimes be a little dry and specialist for the general reader.
Another academic who writes with the general reader in mind is Richard Moorhead, Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law. His Lawyer Watch is always one of the first places to go to for comment on matters of legal ethics, and he does so in a particularly clear and readable way.
No summary of legal blogs would be complete without mention of Carl Gardner’s Head of Legal. Mr Gardner is a barrister and former government lawyer. His blog ranges widely over the law, although usually with an emphasis on human rights, judicial review and crime. It is about as authoritative as any you will read. Although I am not much of a judge of these things it seems to me one of the slickest in design terms. It is very understandable that he was one of the select few legal bloggers invited to assist the Leveson inquiry (not that, in the event, Leveson paid much attention to bloggers). Amongst my favourites as far as I know only David Allen Green and Francis FitzGibbon (of whom more below) were accorded the same accolade, if that is the right word.
I should also mention Obiter J’s blog “Law and Lawyers”. With an emphasis on criminal law this blog does an excellent job of explaining complex legal issues to a wider public.
A star very much in the ascendant is Adam Wagner and his team from 1 Crown Office Row at the UK Human Rights Blog. This is fast becoming an essential resource for anyone involved in or interested in judicial review and administrative law, where law so often clashes with politics. The general tone of the blog is, as one would expect, broadly supportive of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, but to its credit it also publishes material from those who might loosely be termed “Human Rights Sceptics”. A recent post by Rosalind English, for example, brought an important lecture by retired Australian High Court Judge J D Heydon to the attention of a wider audience. Justice Heydon questioned the very need for Human Rights legislation in common law jurisdictions, a view that is now close to heretical amongst human rights lawyers. With the Justice Minister Chris Grayling leading the charge against the European Court of Human Rights and what he calls the “Labour” Human Rights Act, this informative and authoritative blog is likely to assume even greater importance in the years ahead.
Family law is not my field of expertise or interest, so it is particularly likely that I have missed a great blog. I did occasionally dabble in it in my early years at the bar but compared to the polite and civilised world of crime found it far too bad-tempered for my taste. It could also be extraordinarily confusing: I once found myself briefed at court by some eager solicitor’s runner who thrust a bundle of papers containing about the same number of words as Anna Karenina into my hand. I had half an hour to read the story of a family that was unhappy in its own way, but the papers gave no clue as to what I was meant to do, or indeed who I was meant to be representing amongst a varied cast of children, parents, step-grandparents, aunties, local authorities and guardians-ad-litem. No-one had thought to provide a handy aide-memoire of first names, surnames, patronyms and nick-names. It was not until we were finally in court that one of the other lawyers told me whose side I was on. It didn’t seem to matter very much: as far as I remember all that was in issue was whether the foster parents should be allowed to join the party (they were). The case then followed the first rule of care proceedings which is that everyone gangs up on the mother and her unsuitable new boy-friend. However, for those who wish to know about the practice of family law in more detail the best place to start would probably be with Pink Tape, written by the Bristol based family law barrister Lucy Reed. Her posts range from mildly whimsical discussions of suitcases to useful features on topical case law. To my mind she is better on the law than the whimsy, but that is of course very much a question of taste. The blog exudes professionalism and expertise.
The UK criminal law blog is for everyone with an interest in the criminal law, and quite capable of generating such an interest in some who do not. Its authors, barristers Lyndon Harris, Dan Bunting and Sara Williams have set themselves the goal of explaining the intricacies of the criminal law to the general public and by and large they succeed. Moreover, they do so largely through the medium of a never-ending catalogue of unusual, surprising and weird cases. The blog just continues to get better and better, with a particularly interesting set of guest contributors, including a recently published series of posts from a woman accused of fraud. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing her fate, but it is typical of the blog that it avoids the dreary, the dull and the merely self-aggrandising nature of many lesser blogs, many of which are little more than electronic public relations handouts for solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers.
Dan Bunting can also be found writing his own always thought provoking blog: A life in the bus lane. It is an eclectic mix of law and maths, with quite a lot about Mr Bunting’s recent honeymoon. All the posts are entirely respectable but it is one of the few legal blogs that my internet filter regards with intense suspicion and certainly as unsuitable for children. Generally speaking it refuses to allow me to read it on the grounds of excessive violence. I’ve no idea why it takes such a censorious line and anyone seeking an illicit thrill will be disappointed.
A gaggle of excellent blogs sprung into existence in early 2013, prompted in the main by proposals to slash legal aid. Amongst these I would single out the superb and influential A Barrister’s Wife. I know nothing about its author so I have to rely on imagination. The name of the blog conjures up an almost forgotten 1950s world. One might imagine the barrister’s wife, played by the beautiful Celia Johnson, walking into a comfortable sitting-room where her decent but slower-witted husband is sitting in an armchair reading his papers for the next day’s case. Instead of having a love affair with Trevor Howard she has been – admittedly not quite so romantically – hunched over her lap-top all day. She can write and gets to the heart of why criminal lawyers do an important job for very little reward. Unfortunately her love affair with the lap-top came to a sudden end in June since when there have been no further posts. It is rather reminiscent of the most moving scene in all cinema when, after watching Trevor Howard board a train which thunders away into the night, Celia Johnson / Laura Jesson returns to her suburban home to find husband Fred waiting in his usual chair, the crossword open on his lap. It never fails to bring tears to Barristerblogger’s eyes, although his eyes are usually pretty damp by that stage of Brief Encounter anyway:
Fred Jesson: You’ve been a long way away.
Laura Jesson: Yes.
Fred Jesson: Thank you for coming back to me.
Our loss is no doubt her husband’s gain. We must hope that the barrister’s wife is tempted to blog again soon.
A View from the North is another in the anti-Grayling school of bloggers. The author is a Manchester barrister and can usually be relied upon to give the Epsom and Ewell bruiser a painful and thoroughly deserved dig in the ribs. There is often a strong vein of pessimism in his blog, as though he is vocalising the death rattle of the criminal bar. This is apt to induce, not exactly depression, but a mood of plangent melancholia.
Veteran QC Nigel Pascoe loves the criminal bar like no-one else I know. If you read Nigel Pascoe’s blog you will hear a quiet voice of calm and reason about how the bar should react to current events that is in danger, I fear, of being drowned out by too much hot-headed shouting. Somehow Pascoe manages to maintain an optimistic vision of the future. A love of cricket pervades his writing. One can imagine Pascoe leading his team onto the field intent on a full day of cricket even as the first drops of rain begin to fall from a leaden sky. He has listened to the weather forecast but he is damned if he is going to let it ruin his game.
And although he covers many areas of law beyond the strictly criminal Francis FitzGibbon’s mysteriously named Nothing Like the Sun demands attention for it is a serious and insightful blog. Mr FitzGibbon is a silk from “radical” Doughty Street Chambers, but his voice is independent and he always seems to have something important to say. Much to his credit he has taken on the insufferable Richard Dawkins, something that requires a degree of courage. He too was asked to contribute to the Leveson inquiry and his witness statement (although it appears in an irritating PDF format that takes forever to load and often crashes my computer) is a good explanation of why he blogs and why blogging matters; it also explains the blog’s title (Shakespeare’s Sonnet No.130).
I am putting these two under the heading of “Students’ blogs” because they are written by respectively a law student and a pupil barrister. However they are not written for a student readership. They can both more than hold their own in any company of legal bloggers.
Gemma’s blog, written by law student Gemma Blythe, is a mine of information and opinion, although it could perhaps do with a snappier title. Ms Blythe has Mr Grayling firmly in her sights and is a staunch supporter of criminal legal aid. Anyone with an interest in the subject should read her regularly. She is also a good tweeter, and has been very good at tweeting live from various legal meetings.
It is hard to believe that exceptionally learned Greg Callus, author of A Typo in the Constitution, is a pupil barrister. If his advocacy is anything like as lucid and persuasive as his writing he will soon be a tenant in a first class set of chambers. He writes with originality and imagination about all aspects of the law and if I have a criticism of him it is that he does not post often enough. He wrote a particularly interesting piece on Operation Oxborough (the police investigation into the murder of Jill Dando) which has been very inadequately covered elsewhere. He has also bravely floated the idea of replacing Legal Aid with what he calls Mandatory Individual Legal Insurance for Adults (“MILIA”), a sort of Obamacare for litigation. It is an imaginative solution to the legal aid problem and deserves far more consideration than it has so far had. Mr Callus also pops up from time to time in the mainstream media and in my view he is one of the most interesting legal journalists or bloggers writing today. He is not easy to pin down politically, but he is refreshingly not an identikit liberal leftie. One small change would make his blog more user friendly. At present it seems impossible to link to any particular post, any link has to be to the whole blog. However, I am sure that this technical problem can easily be sorted out.