Wednesday 8th March is International Women’s Day.
This year’s theme is Be Bold For Change and the challenge is to take ground breaking action that truly drives change for women and improves inclusivity.
Thinking about this idea in terms of practice at the criminal bar is a challenge.
The profession has changed hugely since many of us first started our careers but there is much more work to be done for all users of the criminal justice system.
So what can barristers do to drive change for women and improve inclusivity? Paying pupils a living wage, ensuring chambers has a parental leave policy that supports parents are part of that process, but in reality in a profession where most of us are self employed the demands on everyone are such that we can all find ourselves feeling alone and unsupported. We push ourselves beyond our limits to earn a living a do a good job. Young barristers find it impossible to get ahead of their student debt, make a living and afford to live in the capital. This is especially hard for those without parental financial support. For the publicly funded Bar this issue is beyond our control, other than lobbying and competing for better funding.
So, what can I do as a woman for other women in the context of this profession? The very institutions of the Bar are inherently male. Set up by crusading knights (male), the adversarial system is combative and patriarchal (male) relying on vanquishing and defeating one’s opponent rather than using negotiation and compromise to reach a fair and just result. And of course the arcane dress is similarly male. Indeed most crimes are predicated on the assumption that they are committed by men (which on the whole is true). So other than trying to overthrow what seems like a thoroughly outmoded justice system how can we “feminise” it so that everyone who works within it can feel able to be heard? I don’t think any of the things we can do are ground breaking, rather they are small steps that attempt to tweak a flawed system. It isn’t ground breaking to be subtle or to use non-traditional forms of cross-examination but this sort of way of working with vulnerable and young witnesses is now accepted as the way forward in dealing with sensitive cases. That it is a successful approach to advocacy comes as a shock to the traditional male approach of confrontational, challenge everything, shout-out-loud advocacy, but it is catching on. This approach needs to bleed into other areas of our working lives, whether it is the way we deal with colleagues, how we talk to our clients and how we deal with difficult judges. Recently when a judge asked me when the “girls” (two adult female witnesses) would be brought to court I felt able to give him a retort that told him exactly what I thought of referring to witnesses in those terms.
For women as Defendants though, there is still much to be done. Whilst the story for any defendant is never straightforward or simple, oftentimes the background to how a woman finds herself before the courts is more complex than simply defining her by her crime. The context is often in abuse, addiction and poverty. Breaking the cycle of violence and crime needs in my view something more than just community based programs as an alternative to custody. Supporting women in being able to be housed safely away from violent family members, to be able to work and have consistent childcare are not just empowering but also allowing the next generation to break that cycle. Trying to fix things when women find themselves in court is often too little too late.
Ultimately what is good for women is good for society and good for us all.
Will you be #BoldForChange ?
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