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“Women? We’ve got one.”

25 May 2012 

Anybody watching BBC 2’s retrospective on the 1970’s will know that Britain was a very different place back then. This was an era of rocketing inflation, industrial unrest and massive social change. A time of IMF bailouts, 3 day weeks and nationalised industry, it was also the decade when we began to see a challenge to the prevailing culture of casual sexism, ignorant racial bigotry and entrenched inequality between men and women.

This was the world in which Helena Kennedy first began working in 1972 as a barrister and in which she set up her first set of Chambers. “ I started at time which predated The Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act and those bits of legislation which were so empowering.” At the time only 8% of barristers were women and, amazing as it may seem now, some Chambers would state openly that “we don’t take women”.

Even after laws such as the Sex Discrimination Act were passed to create an equal playing field for women and to make it illegal to discriminate against women in the work place, early attitudes smacked very much of paying lip-service to the law. “Women? We’ve got one!” used to be the way many employers including barristers chambers initially responded to the challenge of meeting the legal requirement to offer women equivalent opportunities to their male counterparts.

Helena Kennedy trumped these attitudes by setting up her own Chambers with 3 male and 3 female barristers. “We were all aged 23 at the time……We got two rooms in Lincoln’s Inn. I confess…the reason we got the rooms was because I stole the notice from the notice board in Inner Temple Lane.” The work was far from glamorous – they worked mainly for Law Centres – and it was never going to make them rich, but it did give them the independence to experiment with new ideas like allowing women to take maternity leave without losing their place in chambers.

From those inauspicious beginnings Helena Kennedy went on to become Dame Helena Kennedy QC – and one of the country’s best known and most highly respected criminal lawyers. “I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. It had the intellectual challenge but it also had [the fact that] it was about the stuff of people’s lives..[and] the drama of the courtroom.” Dame Helena was also attracted by the independence that the Bar offered. “Your success sprang from your own endeavour,” as well as a mixture of hard work, determination and sheer bloodymindedness.

It must have been hard to break through at a time when many professional women were patronised even ignored. And harder still if you were female and came from any kind of different background. “Judges used to claim that they couldn’t understand a word I was saying. A Scottish accent – a Glaswegian accent – was….so unusual for them to hear in the courts that it was as if I had dropped from Mars.”

But looking back Dame Helena can see there have been many changes. “The Bar had to change and it has.” There are now more women at the Bar than ever before. 64% of the Family Bar is female for example. And it is now much more acceptable for women to take time out to have children.

But there is still lots to do. Whilst women dominate the Family Bar, Chancery remains a male preserve. As Dame Helena points out 81% of barristers at the Chancery Bar are men and 66% went to either Oxford or Cambridge.

The issue of getting more people from working class backgrounds like her to apply for the Bar is one which poses a particular challenge.

Chambers, for example, get 100s of applications every year and its hard work looking at every single one. “It is tempting to look for short cuts…It’s tempting to say “Well, we only look for people who have been to Oxbridge or..the Russell Group Universities.” But, she asks, what about the ones “who didn’t know any better and went to their local university…Are we discriminating against talent coming from unusual places?”

The point is that whilst great strides have been made to increase access to the Bar to women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic background can still be a barrier. Put simply people don’t apply where they don’t feel they fit in: and working class kids won’t apply if everyone they encounter at the Bar is middle class.

It is precisely to help overcome this barrier that The Helena Kennedy Foundation exists. It aims to help students from poorer backgrounds make the move from further education to higher education by making small grants to enable them to buy a computer or help with travel.

For this group, “ is only part of the disadvantage. The other parts are …networks and knowhow.” For example, why should someone know that if your want to go to Oxbridge you shouldn’t apply to study law because it is one of the most competitive subjects going to get into? If you come from a working class background why would you know that you should do certain A-levels if you want to be a barrister? How would you know how to go about applying to the Inns of Court?

As she points out networks can also be something which give young people from richer backgrounds an unfair advantage. “There are networks which are available to very privileged people which aren’t available to others.”

It’s clear that Dame Helena Kennedy feels that the battle to make the bar – and the legal profession - as inclusive and representative of society is a battle that is only partly won. But she is clearly determined to do her bit. After all, “the law is enriched by diversity..if our courts don’t look like the wider world then we are failing…the public.”


Dame Helena Kennedy QC was speaking at The College of Law's recent Diversity at the Bar discussion. You can watch highlights of the event on our YouTube channel.


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