Lee Mitchell, a thirty-year old barrister from a working-class Caribbean background, is an outsider in the cut-throat, typically white, middle-class male environment of the Chambers where she works. She is tolerated at best because she is good at her job and adds a ‘little local colour’ to the firm but when she takes on the high-profile case of notorious millionaire playboy Clive Omartian, she finds herself in very dangerous waters both professionally and personally.
I like a good legal thriller, and Without Prejudice doesn’t disappoint with it’s detailed description of the UK criminal court system, and its twists and betrayals. The Omartian case, Lee works on is less about the crime committed, fraud, and more about how professional integrity or a lack of can determine the course and the outcome of a case. It was also fascinating to read as Lee, a defence barrister navigates her way around a system full of sharks and players, while trying to stick to her principles.
One of the main drivers of the novel was how Lee’s race and gender was used both against her and at times, seemingly for her – Clive Omartian insists on Lee as his barrister because of her outsider status. This, he claims, is what drives her to succeed which can only work for his best interest. But this backhanded compliment only demonstrates just how difficult it is for Lee to succeed and be respected on her own merits as a Black professional woman. She’s never really taken at face value, and there are just as many people ready to use her as well as discredit her.
Another case runs counter to the Omartian case, involving Simone, Lee’s former classmate and rival. Having reconnected at a career’s event at the secondary school they went to, where Simone now teaches, a tentative friendship begins between the two women. When Simone is raped by a man she was seeing, she turns to Lee who persuades her to report. What follows is a really harrowing insight into the way rape victims are treated within the justice system, and how rape cases can sometimes amount to little more than political posturing. Though this book was first published in 1997 and some attitudes have changed there is an overriding sense that it’s not much both within and outside the court system. One of the most powerful scenes, and by extension the most upsetting was when Simone was cross-examined on the stand. The misogyny and racism jumps off the page as the case reaches its unfortunate but inevitable conclusion. Without giving too much away there is a moment of retribution meted upon Simone’s rapist which was understandable but not the way in which it was delivered as it involved a trans woman. To me didn’t sit right and was actually quite problematic which says more about how some attitudes towards sexuality and gender have changed today, albeit by not very much.
Despite that, Without Prejudice is an enjoyable read with some well-drawn characters and a nicely paced plot. As one of Bernardine Evaristo’s picks for the Black Britain Writing Back series, this was a really good choice and very much of its time. I also like how the novel disrupts a genre which typically the preserve of white men, in the same way as Lee Mitchell disrupts the environment she works in. More books like this please.