Review: In Black and White, by Alexandra Wilson

Alexandra Wilson was a teenager when her dear family friend Ayo was stabbed on his way home from football. Ayo’s death changed Alexandra. His death compelled her to enter the legal profession to search for answers.
As a junior criminal and family law barrister she finds herself navigating a world and a set of rules designed by a privileged few. A world in which barristers sigh with relief at the retirement of a racist judge: ‘I’ve got a black kid today and he would have had no hope.’

In her debut book In Black and White, Alexandra beautifully re-creates the tense court room scenes, the heart-breaking meetings with teenage clients and the moments of frustration and triumph that make up a young barrister’s life.

Alexandra speaks with raw honesty about her experience as a mixed-race woman from a non-traditional background in a profession that is sorely lacking in diverse representation. A justice system in which a disproportionately large number of black and mixed-race people are charged, convicted and sent to prison.

She shows us how it feels to defend someone who hates the colour of your skin or someone you suspect is guilty, and the heart-breaking youth justice cases she has worked on. We see what it’s like for the teenagers coerced into county line drug deals and the damage that can be caused when we criminalise teenagers.

Her account of what she has witnessed as a young mixed-race barrister is in equal parts shocking, compelling, confounding and powerful. Alexandra’s story is unique in a profession still dominated by a section of society with little first-hand experience of the devastating impact of violent crime.

Endeavour • 13th August 2020
£16.99 • Hardback

My Review

Thanks to Anne Cater, of Random Things Tours for organising this blog tour, thanks to the publisher, Octopus Books, for sending me a copy of this book and finally, thanks to the author for writing this book.

In Black and White charts Alexandra Wilson’s year as a Pupil Barrister from her first day in court to the day she gains tenancy in Chambers. As a mixed-heritage, state educated, working class woman from Essex, she is a very different person to the stereotype of a barrister – middle-aged, middle/upper-class, privately educated, white men – although she runs into a fair number of those. Her differences make her a great advocate and relatable to many of her clients, who she often meets on the day of their court appearance.

I read this book in a few hours while resting in my room – I’ve been ill with a cold. I couldn’t put it down once I started reading. It was gripping to hear about Alexandra Wilson’s experiences in training and in court. This isn’t a world I know much about – I’ve only been to court as a juror (highly recommend that experience) – so I was fascinated to read an ‘insider’ account.

As a perceived outsider, Alexandra Wilson was talked down to at the grammar school she went to to do her ‘A’ Level, at her Oxford college people told her she didn’t sound like she should be there (I encountered the rich brats who think like this at Durham in the early 2000s too – if you don’t sound like you’re talking through your nose they don’t think you have a right to education) and plenty of her clients as a Barrister have said she wasn’t what they expected – sometimes they mean it in a nice way and sometimes they don’t. Struggling with imposter syndrome, reinforced by older colleagues who decried the ‘new diversity measures’ or that BAME clients were specifying minority ethnic Barristers, Wilson faces her paranoia about it all being for nothing, with strength and compassion, focusing on the point of all the hard work, all the expense, the stress, sleepless nights and terrible diet: to make sure people are fairly represented whether as prosecutor or defendant.

In charting her year in pupillage, Wilson highlights the strengths and weaknesses not just of the training system for Barristers, but of our justice system. It is heavily biased against anyone who isn’t a white middle class man; there’s actual statistical evidence to show this, and Wilson quotes from various reports to back this up. It often works against vulnerable people with difficult life situations and there doesn’t appear to be any form of identity checking at the entrance to the courts – a person can sign in as anyone so long as they match the general appearance of the client. There’s often limited space and little privacy for consultation between Barrister and client, and the supports available for children/young people/vulnerable people are adequate but unevenly applied. There is little support for women working in the courts and there is still a macho culture that allows heavy drinking and inappropriate behaviour in some Chambers which spreads into the courts with inadequate reporting systems. Gaining pupillage is difficult and expensive, which is a barrier to lower income trainees.

Many people are trapped in cycles of crime and punishment, unable to escape because of a limited education and life experiences from an early age (children in care are disproportionately likely to be imprisoned) sometimes the court system is used inappropriately – e.g. feuding neighbours reporting a child for ‘criminal damage’ after the child picked some flowers. The neighbour had threatened to kill the child’s kitten so the child pulled up some flowers because they were distressed. Or, the mentally ill people in need of hospitalisation, but with no beds available they’re sent to prison. Or the man with schizophrenia who get into an argument with another resident in the sheltered accommodation he lived in and pushed the support worker who tried to intervene and was charged with assault.

None of those cases should have gone to court but the appropriate services, mental health services for example, are underfunded and the police are too often called in when it really isn’t appropriate because people don’t know what else to do. This book has only reinforced the opinion I developed after reading The Prison Doctor last year: society is a mess and the judiciary is contributing to it because they criminalise the vulnerable.

There’s a lack of education regarding the law in the general population, and that can get you into trouble; people don’t know that gripping someone’s arm during an argument, for example could be a crime, or that having a shouting match with the neighbours might be a crime if people feel threatened. Right up until the point where it ends up at the Magistrates and you risk losing your job.

It’s not all bad! There are plenty of decent solicitors, barristers, judges, magistrates, social workers, and people in general out there trying to find appropriate solutions, where they can. The Youth Offender’s Teams seem determined to do there best to keep children out of prisons and help them deal with their problems, while a lot of the ‘racist judge’ types (including the barristers) that are mentioned in the book are beginning to retire. Nothing will change until everything changes, and Wilson is part of the change that needs to happen. I hope her example inspires others to get into and stay in the legal system to bring change from within where they can and to encourage change in outward conditions where appropriate.

I found myself sympathising with Wilson as I read about her experiences and empathising with many of her clients. She writes with clarity and sensitivity about a difficult time – both for herself and her clients. I was gripped, waiting to find out if she got tenancy, although it was obvious that she must have done because it says on the back of the book that she is a junior barrister, but her writing gave the situation an immediacy that brought a lump to my throat. I admit I cried a few times reading this book, for Alexandra and for some of her clients.


2 Comments

  1. annecater says:

    Thanks so much for the blog tour support Rosie xx

    1. R Cawkwell says:

      No problem, it was an absolute pleasure.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s