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A Woman’s Changing Place in the Courtroom

“someone smells nice in here”……. Not a completely unfamiliar remark that I heard in my younger days upon entering a courtroom, Judge’s chambers etc. I would always try and deflect by a response such as “clearly my (usually male) learned friend”.

Was it patronizing? Certainly. Was it offensive? Actually, I was more irritated than offended as I felt that the type of remark, meant perhaps in a complimentary way, was highlighting me as a woman rather than a barrister. One just had to develop a sense of humour and then show the speaker just how much you were a barrister first, a woman second in that context.

How it has all changed now and in my opinion for the better.  Perhaps it is less underlying attitudes that have changed so much as behaviour; whichever it is, we are all the better for it.

The problem for any woman was to have to ‘prove’ her worth but, given the numbers of women at the Bar and the pleasing number of silks, it would seem that my generation blazed the trail and women do not need to present as other than professionals.

Another important and helpful development for women practitioners is the allowance for pregnancy and children. Time off for maternity issues- pre- or post childbirth is both a privilege and a right which is now acknowledged and welcomed. The Bar can be unforgiving when juggling a practice with the needs of a young family. In theory, as a self-employed person, managing your time should be easier than when in full time employment. In practice, it can be onerous because the load is held only by you and deadlines or court appearances cannot be passed to others. Chambers, courts and colleagues are far more amenable and helpful than in past times –or should be. If they are not, a word to the Head of Chambers; the Senior Judge at the Court should generally put things right. A female clerk, particularly a Senior clerk, who has her own family commitments can be a boon in really comprehending the issues and, few though they are, we are seeing more than ever before.

Another remarkable change is the number of women judges at all levels. We have just seen the inauguration of the very first Lady Chief Justice and this is a cause for real celebration. We have also had the pleasure of Lady Hale as the first woman head of the Supreme Court and, disappointing though it was to have but one other female Supreme Court Justice, the very recent appointment of Simler LJ to the Supreme Court is another step in the right direction. There is still too much of an imbalance between men and women in the Supreme Court, for my taste, but we are making progress. We do have a fairly healthy complement of women in the Court of Appeal, High Court and at circuit level and so we are moving slowly and inexorably to equality of arms.

Overall the impact of women at the Bar has been astounding over the years that I have practiced and most importantly of all is the fact that, no longer is a woman practitioner at any level now considered an ‘oddity’ or ‘outlier’ but the norm. No longer does a client , whether lay or professional, have any apparent surprise or concern at having a woman act for them in contrast to the days when one appearance at court was greeted with surprise and occasional concern. Hopefully the days are long gone when a woman will be acceptable to a client only when he discovered that I was the wife of his ‘usual barrister’ and he reluctantly tolerated me because he was able to call me Mrs ….. rather than my professional name. I laughed it off then but it was really rather an insult.  

My final words on women at the Bar is simply this: we are equal and we are as good as our counterpart men but we can still use those advantages that we have to good use; we have sound minds, good brains and the intellectual skills to deploy in every part of our practice. We also have and can use, when it suits, the advantages of charm and our agreeability just as some men can still (and do) use the advantages of height and aggression. If that sounds counter-intuitive, it is not meant to be. All I am saying is that I have learned that being on a level playing field is the right start but then, like any military person in the field, you can harness any additional attribute that you possess that the other side may not have; after all, you want to win!

Jacqueline Perry KC

4-5 Gray’s Inn Square

January 2024