12 June, 2009

Gender and Law: A Bedraggled Law Student's Comment

It'll be about a month ago, during the period of my life I'll always remember as revision hell, when Baroness Hale and Her Honour Judge Case came to speak at my college. Having smarted from yet another kick in the pants arising out of my lack of legal knowledge, I thought I'd take a nice break and sit down and hear the good Lady herself.

For those who may not know, Baroness Hale is the first female Law Lord (Law Lady?) and HHJ Case is a Circuit Judge who mainly works in Chester and is Treasurer of the UK Women Judges' Association.

Right, now I have that out of the way, I should add I would have given you all a transcript of what was said, but I don't know if I'd be allowed to, and my Zen died, along with the recording on there. So you'll have to put up with what I remember.

Anyways, back to the show. Baroness Hale made her speech first, and it was mainly about her experiences as a woman working within the legal world. She'd actually come up from an academic background, which is surprising, considering that most if not nearly ALL the judiciary tend to come up from the ranks of the barristers (with the occasional solicitor slipping through...). A recurrent comment throughout her speech was upon her status as the “second woman” in everything (except the House of Lords capacity clearly), which she'd felt had been more difficult, in certain ways, than being the first woman. She had also given a very entertaining discourse on the meaning of the word “feminist”, with the very first definition confusing the political and social views with femininity, and gradually gaining its proper definition, significant of course because she described herself as a feminist. On the whole, the speech was mainly about her career, but focusing on the difficulties she'd faced coming up through the ranks and the support she had along the way, which was interesting in itself, considering she's been around for years and would have definitely had to put up with a lot grief, not all of it explicit, over her gender. One thing I enjoyed about the speech was the optimism that seemed to radiate from it with regard not just to female judges but also judges from ethnic minorities. But I'll cover that in the questions section.

Judge Case made her speech next, her one being along the same lines as Baroness Hale's, but this time with her doing the law degree, taking time off to have her children and then coming back into the law again. What was interesting to note was what was said to her at the time when she had finished her law degree and decided to have her family. She had been told, in very stark terms, that the career of a barrister would never leave room to have children. It was either one or the other. Perhaps more pessimistic than Baroness Hale's speech, since she had ended on such a note, saying that her advice would be to mothers thinking of a career in the law to think about the choice that had to be made, between a career and children.

Question time came and this was where the most interesting part arose. Someone had actually pointed out Judge Case's pessimism to her and told her that moves were being attempted to help barristers who had children as well, an example being a creche set up in one of the chambers. Her Honour had reacted with delight to this, and I was thinking to myself, I'm surprised they didn't come up with anything like that before. Another question had related to a point I mentioned earlier, about judges from minorities, and how there was talk of putting positive discrimination legislation in to encourage both woman and ethnic minorities into the judiciary. This has always been a particular bug-bear of the right, who feel that their privileged domain is being invaded. Baroness Hale's answer was very encouraging, to say the least.

She had given a very good positive argument for it, stating that this would encourage people from different backgrounds and experiences to be part of the office that would make a difference to the way the country was run. Rather than ruining the institution, it would be enriched by being informed by so many different experiences of life. With England becoming a more multicultural country, this is something that would reflect that multicultural makeup, and all these different experiences would come together to help develop the law.

Well, speeches and questions ending, I decided to return back to my study group. But I came away thinking that with someone like Baroness Hale at the very top, a feminist Law Lady keen on diversifying the judicial complexion of the country, perhaps change is finally happening. Perhaps we can finally get into the positions which matter the most, and not compromise our principles for them. Of course, many obstacles will always remain, not least a Press that feeds on ignorance like pigs on manure (and I have to apologise now... to the pigs that is), not least an entire economic class that fears that change, mistakenly thinking they will be swept away, when that change will do nothing but benefit them.

Are we truly so tied down to the past that we can't look at the future in front of us? Is it really such an impossibility, such anathema to "common sense", for those in positions of power to be from our minority sections of the population? I suppose the word "minority" is facetious in relation to women, since they make up 50% of the world population. Therein lies the nub of it, the contradiction at the heart of everything: those who make up a sizeable portion of our population, women, Afro-Carribeans, Asians, the "minorities" who help keep this country going. Why don't they get a say in running it?

As I say, with a feminist Law Lady, that change is beginning. Now we have to keep it rolling.

Who knows? Maybe we'll have a Lord Rahman up there some day :-P.

By the way, if my blog entry does not do the good Baroness justice, a much better profile may be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/jan/09/lords.women.

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