What is the law? How does it work? Why do we have it, and how did it become what it is now? Who makes our laws, and how? What motivates judges and lawyers in their work? How does the law shape, and sometimes distort, society? How does it affect your lives, and mine?
I’m Ian Neil. I’ve been a practising barrister for more than 30 years, and now I’m also the host of Witness Box - a podcast that takes you deep into the law.
I’ll be talking to lawyers, judges, academics, agitators, offenders and litigants - people who practice, experience, and think about the law, as it is, and as it should be.
I know that the law is far from perfect. I have lived and worked with its deficiencies for decades, and I know all of them well. We’ll be talking about them on Witness Box.
But, I must tell you, I love the law. I love the idea of it - the idea of it as a social instrument, that has as its object a society in which we can live fairly with one another.
And I love the work I do as a barrister: thinking; taking ideas apart and looking at them critically; talking and writing about them; arguing, examining and cross examining witnesses.
I even love the wig and gown. When I put them on, I feel as though at that moment I am taking on the history, the traditions, the thought and care and striving, the barristers who went before me, all around the world, for almost a thousand years.
I often think of a wonderful conversation I once had, beneath a mango tree in a village in rural Bangladesh, speaking with a young woman, the only lawyer in the district who was prepared to represent women in court. She had dusty sandals on her feet, and wore a black gown that looked just the same as the one I wore at home. On the surface we could not have come from more different worlds - but one world we shared. The law we each served was essentially the same - the same ideas, history, philosophy, techniques. She was braver than me, though - incomparably so. Not long after that conversation she paid with her life for the work she did for women. I learned many things from her. One of them was that the law isn’t just an abstract set of rules. It is real, vital, urgent.
There is an ethical dimension to a barrister’s work - a responsibility to be honest, and fearless, and to give everything to the person for whom, or the cause for which, you are advocating, but all within the rules.
I will be bringing the same approach to Witness Box, as we talk about the law framing the way we live.
How was the law used to respond to the public health emergency of COVID-19? What will that mean for the future balance between social responsibility and personal liberty, or between police and the policed?
What is it like to be a woman working in the law?
How do judges go about sentencing people convicted of crimes, and how do they balance the interests of the community and the circumstances of the offender? We often hear on the one hand that it is important that judges have broad discretions when sentencing, and on the other hand that they often misuse them. We’re going to talk about that controversy.
What is it like to be a lawyer in a trial for a terrorism offence, or on an international war crimes tribunal?
How do I, as a barrister, represent the guilty, the discreditable, the unpopular - and why is it important for barristers to do so?
What do all the Royal Commissions and inquiries that are now such a feature of life in this country actually do, how do they work, and why do we have so many of them?
What do juries do, and how do they work?
These are just some of the questions that we will exploring in Witness Box.