It was the day of our first “walkthrough” of how the Human Rights Act would work in practice in the courts: a whole day with over twenty participants: judges, magistrates , lawyers, police and human rights experts “walking through” a scenario devised by the experts to test the others’ understanding of how different things would be when the Act came into force, and what changes they would need to make in the way they did things.
As the scenario unfolded- policing of an animal rights demonstration , arrest, charging, detention and trial in a magistrates court, I could see from the faces round the table, and the comments that people were making that the penny was dropping and that they could see how things would need to change. The Circuit Judge next to me muttered something about how he could now see what the Article 6 duty on the court would mean for him. Several participants had said they could only come for the morning, but then asked if they could stay for the whole day and even come back for the next one, which was a Crown Court scenario.
The Act was still going through Parliament but there was a huge training effort organised by the Judicial Studies Board and supported by JUSTICE, to train all judges and magistrates. I was leading a small team in the Lord Chancellor’s Department (as it then was) working with the Home Office, Parliamentary Counsel, Cabinet Office, lawyers in the LCD and many human rights lawyers, who generously gave their time and expertise to make sure that we civil servants knew what to plan for.
Lord Chancellor Irvine, had told me that he wanted “ no chaos in the courts” and so before we even started working on the Bill, I had been to talk to as many Human Rights experts as I could, each one passing me on to several others . Both JUSTICE and Liberty worked very closely with my team and the JSB, as did many individuals. It was an extraordinary time and an almost unprecedented piece of collaboration between the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the legal world, and also between the LCD and the Home Office, who were responsible for drafting the Bill.
As a Bill team, our proudest moment came when the Earl Russell said “The drafting of the Bill appears to me to be a thing of intellectual beauty.” (3 Nov 1997). We all sat in the official Box and glowed.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
I think that the LASPO changes have made the situation much worse for women who are victims of domestic violence. But we know that in general, in relation to justiciable rights, women, the young, the old, the disabled and ethnic minorities face huge challenges in accessing justice. Sadly, I think that those challenges are getting greater with cuts in legal aid, cuts in local authority funding of advice services and of community groups.
The first crucial step in getting access to justice is realising that the problem is something that might have a legal solution, and the next is knowing where to turn. That is why I have worked throughout my career to support Public Legal Education. The Ministry of Justice sponsored a task force chaired by Dame Professor Hazel Genn, and Willy Bach MP, as Minister at MOJ was hugely supportive. I am now a Trustee of LawforLife, which promotes PLE in community settings and through its website www.Advicenow.uk which has essential, high-quality information and advice to build knowledge, skills and confidence for anyone faced with the problems that occur in everyday life. I often use it to help friends and neighbours who ask for help, after which, they start to use it too.
It is not enough to expect people to find access to justice by themselves. We need to target the groups from Hazel Genn’s research whom we know are most likely to need it and to make the information, advice and help available to them in places accessible to them, whether it is real or virtual, where their needs are understood and in ways which make sense to them. That is part of the advice strategy which the Low Commission, of which I am Vice-Chair, developed in its 2013 report.
In addition to that, we commissioned research on the impact of advice on health outcomes, demonstrating how advice in GPs surgeries, in mental health services and in acute secondary care, can make an enormous difference to people’s health and wellbeing by sorting out problems with welfare benefits, employment , housing, debt and family issues. That research is being used by advocates of this approach to persuade commissioners to invest NHS money in something that is not a clinical intervention, but something that makes a big difference to health. It has the potential to help women as well as others in need.
Looking back on your career, how far do you think the UK has come towards gender parity?
Not as far as we should have done, or as I hoped when I started work in the seventies, in an overwhelmingly male world. It sometimes feels as though we made progress and then started slipping back. Women still earn less than men; shoulder more of the household duties; occupy fewer senior positions of power and responsibility. Yes, we can point to women like our Chair, Helena Kennedy, and other notable women in the law. However when I used to sit in Westminster Abbey for the annual service at the start of the Legal Year, the procession of judges walking over to Westminster Hall appeared overwhelmingly male.
Additionally, in the Civil Service we moved towards more women at senior levels and then slipped back. There was much soul-searching about why this was happening, as the intake of graduates was evenly balanced, much as it is in law. Overall, Civil Service was a good equal opportunities employer. I worked part time for most of my career, and I was proud that my Directorate supported a variety of different working patterns which enabled people to balance work and family responsibilities. At one point I had two senior job-share duos .I felt that although I could not change things on a broad canvas, I could make things different in the area for which I was responsible. Increasingly, however, the demands of the most senior jobs deterred both men and women from pursuing them, unless they were intensely ambitious. As a result, we lost the input that all that talent would make.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
I have always been inspired by the people with whom I work, especially those working on the front line, in advice agencies and as solicitors and barristers working to help people; and those who work in the law to make things different and better. It has been a huge privilege to work with this community all of my career and to be able to continue to do so in my retirement.
Personally, my greatest inspiration was my mother, who had spent many years on bringing up three children, teaching part-time and working with a women’s organisation, then in her sixties doing what she had always wanted by working on equal opportunities for women, becoming Co-Chair of the Women’s National Commission and then Deputy Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Her late flowering ( she had been a civil servant during the war but since she married had to resign in peacetime) gave me the confidence to work part time, to take a career break, and to survive two years at home with a mystery virus, and still feel that I could return to work and make something of it.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefited from knowing as a student?
One can achieve more working with others than on one’s own. It took some time to develop the nerve to work in this way in the Lord Chancellor’s Department. The traditional way was to look at the files and to follow what had been done before! I always wanted to find out what professional and lay court users wanted in the areas of work that I was responsible for, but at the start of my career this was rather discouraged – as making things take too long! I later found that involving those who knew about the law, including academics, helped us gain a richer appreciation of the practical problems and possible solutions. I have lost count of the number of working parties I have chaired, but I owe such a lot to the people who gave so much time and knowledge and experience through them.
Join us on 19 March 2016 for our Annual Student Conference to hear Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. Sign up now.