In our fight to save the justice system, what better role model to look to than Atticus Finch, says Kevin Poulter
You don’t need me to inform you that the criminal legal aid system is undergoing a few changes at the moment. Barristers and solicitors from across the country have come together to protest in unison against the proposals made by the lord chancellor, Chris Grayling. With a target to shave somewhere between £220m and £350m off the legal aid budget by 2018, the proposal is to reduce the number of firms providing advice and much needed assistance from 1,600 to fewer than 400 “factories of mass-produced justice”, as Lord Woolf has referred to them. Defendants will no longer be able to choose who represents them, but will be allocated an accredited firm or adviser. In addition, there will be the introduction of “price competitive tendering” for certain contracts, fixed fees and a reduction in fees of around 20 per cent.
It was only a coincidence that, on the evening before 500 lawyers congregated in Westminster to protest against reforms to legal aid, I found myself sitting in the somewhat chilly Regents Park Open Air Theatre watching a performance of To Kill A Mockingbird. As the audience donned gloves and hats, wrapped themselves in blankets and precautionary waterproofing, there was a sense of venturing into the unknown, a ‘wartime spirit’ of shared anticipation not only due to the weather, but also the stark stage, bearing only a solitary tree and idly swinging tyre.
I am sure you will be familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning story or the 1962 film adaptation. Even without the context of the play or novel, the name of the lead character, Atticus Finch, will be known to you. The black and white image of Gregory Peck is instilled in the minds of law students across the world and the name Atticus Finch has become a representation of all that is good in the legal system and what every lawyer should aspire to.
Virtuous, honest, dependable, forthright, reverent, modest, honorable, respected, certain and just – it is little wonder that Atticus Finch has inspired so many lawyers and has become synonymous with faith, justice and doing right. Finch has done much to boost the public perception of the legal profession and what it stands for. But Atticus Finch is just a man, and a fictional one at that. What relevance could he possibly have for today’s profession?
The play is set in the town of Maycomb, deep in the American South. Unlike the bitterly cold London evening, the scenes on stage were of long balmy nights, where racial tensions were running high and the sun beating down on a group of young children making their own fun. As well as the occasional resident duck and owl flying overhead, we hear the mockingbird too. We learn about the children’s absent father, Atticus (played with attention-grabbing conviction by Robert Sean Leonard), who has been tasked with defending a young black father, accused of raping a white girl in the town. The first half of the play introduces us to Atticus ‘the man’ through the eyes of his children and neighbours. He appears isolated, distant from his two children who see him as an old man with nothing to offer them and reliant on his housekeeper. He is consumed by his work and ferociously protective of his reputation. As the second half opens in the courtroom, we are introduced to Atticus ‘the lawyer’ who breaks the witnesses, wins over the jury and becomes a hero to his young family. However, he is working against a system of constitutional racism, where every man is not equal and where duty does not always belong to justice.
Heroes and villians
Special mention must go to Dill, played that evening by Sebastian Clifford. Whether it was his bow-tie and shorts, side parting and mischievous grin or his wide-eyed bemusement at a world defined in black and white, I’ll confess to recognising something of myself in his own search for adventure.
There are some powerful speeches, some of which resonate with the present day battle over legal aid and access to justice. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” And when a ‘mad dog’ wanders into town, it is left to Atticus to take the musket from the Sheriff and halt its progress. With Scout and Gem looking on, he takes the dog out in one shot. We might get more than one shot in the legal aid battle or we might already be doomed to failure, but it is no reason to give up.
In 2003, Atticus Finch was voted the greatest hero in American film, beating Indiana Jones and James Bond. Whatever happens in the legal aid debate, as lawyers we need to do what we can to turn Harper Lee’s fiction back into reality, building on the hero status of real life lawyers who have gone before us and continue to work among us every day.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 29 May 2013 and is reproduced here with kind permission.