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Justice on Trial

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point

by Chris Daw QC

Picture: The front cover of Justice on Trial by Chris Daw QC / Credit: Bloomsbury

"The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

By that measure the UK has some soul searching to do. It could start by reading Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point, described as: "A shocking, disturbing, revealing and enlightening examination of a deeply flawed criminal justice system."

To celebrate the book's July 9 paperback release, The Hub spoke to barrister, TV presenter and author Chris Daw QC. Relaxing on a rare day off, with the sun on his face and the grand buildings and lawns of the Temple in the background, he sported a crew cut, a light blue T-Shirt and "classic" Aviator sunglasses. The exact opposite of Rumpole of the Bailey!

With thanks to London soprano and Hub interviewee Emma Dogliani for referencing Chris as an authority on criminal justice in the podcast on her London prison choir, Calming Prisoners Through Song.

An Ordinary Man

Chris Daw is proud to be an unconventional QC: "I come from a relatively unconventional background for a barrister and particularly for a QC. I grew up in an ordinary working class family. My Dad was a self-employed building contractor. My Mum most of the time I was growing up worked in retail, in shops and went on to become a care assistant."

Chris went to a "very ordinary comprehensive secondary school" in Milton Keynes in the 1980s, when "state education wasn’t in a great condition to be perfectly frank". He admits to not engaging with school up to age 16 or making the connection between school education and later career opportunities.

Chris believes many young people from similar families, at not high-achieving comprehensive schools, do not properly engage with their education as a priority.

He left school at 16 with "not many qualifications" and hitched to the south of France with a friend intending to become a trader. The plan was to sell cans of coke and donuts to sunbathers on the beach. "Unsurprisingly given my lack of experience and I mostly ate the stock, I didn’t make much of a go at that!"

He returned to England with no job, nowhere to go, no education. "No nothing!"

Computer Says: Barrister!

Picture: Southport Crown Court interior and exterior, closed in 2010 after a review / Credit: Invest Sefton and Edge Hill University

Meanwhile, Chris' parents had moved from Milton Keynes to Southport, a small town on the North West coast of England, near Liverpool. They said: “You can move back in. But you’ve either got to get a job or go to college.”

By sheer chance, Chris discovered one of the best sixth form colleges in the country was two miles away. Despite his "not very good grades", he persuaded the college to admit him for A’ Levels.

Chris says: "It was a superb place, a really academic environment and the teachers were inspirational. All the young people had gone to good schools and had their parents' support in their education. In a way I had never experienced before."

Towards the end of Chris' first year in sixth form he went to the careers centre because, "I had absolutely no idea what kind of job to do".

His example of work, had been seeing his father working in the building trade. Suddenly, he was in an environment where people were talking about going to university. Something he had never thought of before. Chris took a computer aptitude test, responding to questions on his potential career preferences.

The print out declared two possible career paths: Actor or Barrister!

He enjoyed acting as a student but lacked, he believed, the natural ability to be a professional. Also, he was attracted to the idea of "this barrister thing". He knew what a barrister was, vaguely, from the TV and "all the dressing up and so on".

The careers teacher suggested visiting the local Crown Court. "I had no idea."

"I don’t think most people realise, you can go to the Crown Court whenever you want. I sat in the public gallery and watched a couple of trials. From the moment I sat there and watched the drama of it, the dressing up, but also the human interest of what goes on in a court room, I was utterly hooked."

From then, Chris became focused on the only job he felt he could do. Not just because of what the computer had told him. But, seeing law in action, he thought: "This is absolutely brilliant. I can’t believe this is a real job. It is so interesting, so compelling, and so dramatic, I would pay to do it!"

When Chris realised there was a path of a law degree and stages to qualify as a barrister, that became his obsession. He concentrated on his studies, achieved good A ‘Level results and went on to a law degree at Manchester University. "One of the top half a dozen undergraduate law degree schools in the country."

From the baseline of a law degree, Chris trained as a barrister and thirty odd years later declares: "I’ve had a pretty happy and successful career so far."

If You Can Do It…

Chris volunteers as a speaker at underperforming schools. He gets a hearing because: "I wrote a book and made a BBC 1 series. If they watch an episode before I go, there is more interest than just listening to some old man."

A few years ago 'a young man' contacted him on LinkedIn:

“I was 16 six years ago and you came and talked at my school about legal careers. I asked you a few questions, I didn’t have a lot of confidence. But, I realised if you could come from the same school and do it then why can’t I?"

"my school" was Chris' old school in Milton Keynes and 'the young man' had just started a training contract to qualify as a solicitor at a law firm. "That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my thirty-odd-years career," says Chris.

He adds: "I didn’t lack confidence, I just lacked information. I didn’t know what careers were until 17 or so."

Chris has received similar "amazing feedback" after speaking to other young people in schools. Teachers have messaged to say how important such talks can be and 'young people' have indirectly revealed, "I have decided I can now go to university."

"That really gives me a lot of satisfaction," says Chris. He believes anyone from modest circumstances who achieves success should extend the ladder so more people can climb up.

"Then maybe my profession and others wouldn’t be so dominated by those from private schools and a wealthier background. Of whom, sadly, there is an overrepresentation in the legal profession."

Why Criminal Law?

Chris readily admits the drama of criminal advocacy - the jury trial, the verdict - was his initial spark of interest in becoming a barrister. "You just don’t get that dramatic tension, that intrinsic human interest from any other area of practice. Criminal practice, particularly Serious Crime criminal practice in the Crown Courts, brings together the most exciting ingredients of the practice of law."

Being a trainee, or a Pupil Barrister, in a criminal defence chambers, meant Chris would defend, in court, people accused of crimes, while criminal prosecution barristers on "the other side" would present the case against defendants. He started his training by observing his 'pupil master' on serious cases like murder trials. Six months later, he was defending people charged with shop lifting, minor assault, burglary and car theft.

Chris says: "Whatever the nature of the crime it is always fascinating. You can always find an angle, some story behind the case. The standard of proof in criminal law is “Beyond Reasonable Doubt”. That is a high bar to achieve. Most things in life you would say: “Probably, but I am not 100% sure."

When you are defending it is a fascinating dynamic. You are not looking to prove someone’s innocence in the moral sense. You are looking for evidence to prove the case. I have always enjoyed that intellectual challenge of criminal law.

But when you combine that challenge with the intrinsic excitement of the whole process that hooked me when I was an A ‘Level student. That addiction has never left me. I have never ceased to be enthralled and enthused by the job I do every day."

What makes for a successful Criminal Barrister?

"The human condition, what makes people tick, what motivates people to do what they do? Understanding those things is really vital to being able to being a good criminal lawyer in particular and a lawyer generally.

That (understanding) doesn’t do any harm in all walks of life. But our stock in trade is persuasion of others. We are not just there to persuade the jury in the trial. We have to also persuade our clients to have confidence in what we advise and say. We have to have the confidence of the judge.

The ability to persuade, is massively enhanced when you really understand the human condition and other people. The more diverse your life experience and the people you have grown up with, your friends and work circle, the more effective you are as a professional in almost anything.

"My background and life experience, not just in childhood but throughout my life, are the most important factors in everything I do, every day."

Yesterday I spent the day with a client in prison charged with a serious crime. Then I travelled to meet his wider family who are very worried about him. The ability to engage with people from every walk of life, to be able to communicate, in a calm but empathetic way, I definitely derive from my experience of childhood.

I have always had an eclectic mix of different friends who do different things. Being able to engage with people, and understand what makes people tick wherever they’re from…

When it comes to jury trials, I am speaking to an audience of 12 people from every conceivable walk of life. From sixth formers to 75-year-old retired army majors. The most eclectic mix of people. Because a jury is randomly selected from members of the public. Every race, every age group, every profession.

The more you can appeal to, and understand what might appeal to the whole audience, the whole group, the more likely you are to persuade more of them towards your argument.

It is an odd thing I am saying. My life experience and ability to read human beings may well make a difference to the outcome of a criminal trial. People may say the evidence should determine if a person is innocent or guilty. But of course, juries are made up of human beings and they can be persuaded by any number of things.

Sometimes, I tell stories about my life experiences to illustrate points in my speeches. If that resonates with the jury and causes them to reflect on my story and apply that to the case in a way that helps my client, then that plainly can have an impact on the case, regardless of what the evidence says."

Others seem to agree with Chris' self-assessment. The Legal 500, an industry rankings guide, quotes one of Chris' peers on his courtroom abilities: "Excellent tactical analysis, good rapport with clients and extraordinary courtroom presence."

Why has Justice got it Wrong?

"As I aged and had children in my thirties and became a QC about eight and a half years ago, in my early forties, with a smaller number of big cases, that gave me the opportunity to reflect a bit.

I started to question why we do things in almost every way. Why are we obsessed with punishment, vengeance and revenge, showing people they have done wrong and we are punishing them for it?

The truth is, when you look at criminal justice systems around the world: The most punitive, with the heaviest sentences, corporal punishment, a whole range of more draconian penalties, even the death penalty, tend to be in societies with high levels of violent crime. The United States is a classic example. Or very low levels of human rights. Or both.

Do we really want to see punishment, vengeance, heavy sentencing or even the death penalty, as somehow an end in themselves?

The problem is that medicine kills the patient. The patient is our society and it makes our society sicker. When I began to think about it, I thought do we really want to lock people up for wrong doing?"

Prison Doesn't Work

"Or is there a more important function of the criminal justice system, to reduce the amount of crime in our society and to reduce the number of victims of crime?

That is the absolute priority and (it) is not about being soft on criminals, people might accuse me of. It is saying: “No, I agree the most important priority is lower crime rates, particularly of violent and serious crimes and fewer victims of those crimes.”

You don't achieve that by ever increasing prison sentences, and an ever increasing prison population. Sadly over a generation, our UK prison population has doubled in my time in practice from about 40,000 prisoners to around 80,000. It was even higher before Covid led to a certain number coming out.

We have also seen a doubling of the length of time people spend inside for the more serious crimes. But we have not seen violent crime wiped out on the streets. Most people don’t realise this, because continually the media and social media say: “The whole system has gone soft on crime, the judges are too soft, and they don’t give harsh enough sentences.”

That is why I wrote "Justice on Trial". There is a chapter on "Why We Should Close All Prisons". As a thought experiment, but it makes a point. If (only) we had the ability to focus on the evidence rather than on an emotional reaction to crime.

Of course, I have represented people who have committed the most horrific kinds of crimes. Which are utterly damaging to society as a whole but particularly to the victims and those directly affected. All forms of serious violent and sexual crimes, like child sex abuse and the murder of people in really awful ways.

Yet, when you attack those individuals and you treat them as pariahs and lock them up for as long as possible. You end up with higher and higher levels of those crimes. That is a direct correlation. The more you imprison or “punish” people, the more serious and violent crime you have."

Reducing Sentences and Prison Populations Reduces Crime

"When researching the book, I travelled across the United States and looked at their justice system. I went into prisons and spoke to judges and prosecutors. Across Europe, where there is a very different mentality about these things. As well as the UK, and other places. Everywhere there was that direct connection. The more punitive your approach, the worse your crime problem.

If you follow the evidence, we should do things completely differently. Then, we might finally begin to see some reduction in levels of crime.

Our objective should not be as many people as possible in prison. They have 2.3 million in prison in America. Most people don’t think America is the safest place on earth. Most people know there are large parts of America where crime is completely out of control.

We should be aiming for the smallest possible prison population. That would reflect a society that had achieved the reductions in criminality and harmful and violent crime seen in countries with low prison populations.

The evidence shows we need to reverse this obsession with prison and this ludicrous approach to the criminalisation and prohibition of drugs and the criminalisation of children and young people.

It is perverse and a form of national and institutional abuse of young people that they are still prosecuted and taken to adult criminal style proceedings. Or actual criminal proceedings, from as young as 10 years old. It is unlawful in international law, but no one cares. No one in power anyway, because there is no one doing anything about it.

Prisons are warehouses for the abused, the addicted, the vulnerable and the mentally disturbed. That's 80% of the prison population. A child in care is 14 times more likely to go to prison. Are children in care 14 times more evil?

Sometimes it feels like I am a lone voice in the wilderness. Although there are many others who feel the same way."

What's in your Book?

"Justice on Trial is an accessible book. Half of the book is my juicy, crime cases to illustrate points via different chapters.

There is a quick canter through the history of justice, from the Mayans to the Greeks and Romans. Setting the scene for my real world cases. Then, three core policy areas, with a history of each subject:

  • Why We Should Close All Prisons – setting out why we should massively reduce the use of prison, with a section covering the history of prisons in society.

  • Why We Should Legalize Drugs – with a section on the use of drugs in society going back in time. I go back 200 million years to the evidence suggesting co-evolution of early hominids with psychotropic plants.

  • Why Children Are Never Criminals - We should not criminalize children and need to equalize the age of criminal responsibility, from 10 in England to 18, the age when you can vote and get married.

  • Children can make very serious mistakes and even potentially kill, deliberately or recklessly. But they should never be criminalised for those things. They should, if necessary, be kept in secure educational commissions if they are genuinely a danger to themselves or others. But most children need a welfare rather than a punitive model.

YouTube video: Harry Potter and Sirus Black on Good and Evil / The Prisoner of Azkabhan

  • Why People Are Neither Good Nor Evil - Bringing it all together, I argue good people can do bad things and bad people are capable of good things.

  • I talk about the London Bridge attacks where the two young people were killed by someone just released from prison. Thereby representing a serious failure of prisons as a form of sentence!

  • One of the people who tried to prevent the attacker from killing people was someone who was on licence for murder.

  • We need to choose: What kind of society do we want? Do we want to do things differently? To have a more compassionate approach?"

Justice on Trial: Get The Paperback

Picture: Front cover of the paperback edition of Justice on Trial / Credit: Bloomsbury

Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point was published in paperback on July 9. If you click on the link you can purchase the book direct from publishers Bloomsbury. The book is also available from all good book outlets and as an e-book. Chris read the text for the audio book so you can listen to him in person.

You can keep in touch with Chris' views on criminal justice and a range of policy issues via:

But:"If you really want to get under the skin of who I am, then read Justice on Trial."

Listen to Chris

In the interview with The Hub, Chris quotes Winston Churchill as saying: "You can judge the quality and calibre of a society by the way it treats its prisoners."

In fact, it was Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: "The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons."

Winston Churchill's comment is not dissimilar: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country." - As Home Secretary, House of Commons, July 20, 1910.

You can listen to The Hub's interview with Chris Daw QC by clicking on the link below.

96 Degrees in the Shade

It is a bit of a Hub tradition to ask interviewees about their musical tastes and to present a playlist of their favourite music. Chris gamely entered into this part of the conversation at the end of the interview.

YouTube video: THIRD WORLD - 96 DEGREES IN THE SHADE ° Sunsplash 1983 by Dj Rodrigo_Live

"I have an incredibly eclectic taste in music across an enormous range. But interestingly, I was just thinking today, when I was a child, my Dad was a real reggae fan. He used to play real reggae classics going back pre-Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff to the stars of the 60s and 70s and then on into the 80s.

I am sitting here in bright sunshine, I think it is 27 – 28 degrees. But is not quite as warm as the subject of one of my favourite songs, "96 Degrees in the Shade" by Third World. It just brings me out in utter joy!

So reggae, but I like "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith and Run DMC. I’ll listen to old school hip hop and the new stuff. I like 8 for example, a new Manchester rapper, fairly young. There is almost no category of music, except possibly opera, that irritates my ear.

I love jazz. I am not pretending to be an expert on any type of music. But I like music, it is definitely part of who I am. I pick music according to my mood. I went to Manchester University in the early 90s when it was the centre of dance music. I was at The Hacienda every Friday night for several years.

That kind of dance music and electronic music of different kinds. But I still like rock music, I love Bruce Springsteen, I love electro pop from the 80s and 90s.

I think we live in a really interesting time for music. It went through a tough patch when everybody was getting their music for free and musicians were not making any money. The diversity of music was shrinking before streaming was monetized.

But now, the music that’s available is incredibly diverse, interesting and exciting. Listen to the charts for example. With two teenagers, I am exposed to stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily listen to. There are lots of young people making music in different ways. Exciting times! I will reflect on my 8 choices."

Listen to Chris' Music

You can listen to Chris' music, an eclectic mix as promised, by clicking on the link below.


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