The best days at work for me are when I think I’ve managed to navigate a person accessing the justice system through it in a way that allowed them to understand properly what was going on around them. I represent many people who lack the inter-personal skills and life experience to ask the right questions and who are very intimidated by the highest courts. I have seen such people represented by lawyers who talk past them, over them, and who patronise them. It’s their case and their life – they ought to understand what is happening and take a meaningful part in decisions.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women looking to access justice in the UK?
I fear access to justice will remain a challenge until widespread societal change takes place in the attitudes towards violence against women and the myriad ways in which the emotional abuse and intimidation of women takes place. In many communities this behaviour is still the norm and, combined with poverty issues, leaves women too frightened or unaware of the options to seek out services to assist. We must all, including government at every level, seek to ensure these attitudes are eradicated as soon as possible through every means at our disposal.
We can lead by example from the legal profession too. There are only a handful of successful female criminal silks in Scotland, that part of the profession still being heavily dominated by men, and the men who instruct at that level. If women saw high profile women there to represent them, they might come forward more readily.
How far has the UK come towards gender parity in the legal profession?
I am very happy to say I think the Scottish Bar suffers from little overt sexual discrimination these days. However, I am continually shocked by the attitudes of men of my age who seem to believe true equality is here. It is not. As is the case in almost all industries, the problem is in the subtleties. When one sex has dominated the narrative about what makes a person successful for centuries, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they continue to dictate how people progress in many less visible ways. And the problem is with us too. Like many women I know, I have turned down numerous opportunities in my life on the basis I thought I wasn’t ready or qualified. Women think, “me, …really?” when men think “me? Great choice.” Millennia of conditioning is to blame, not us, but we nonetheless need to change.
One of the best expositions of what equality looks like I have heard was from Lady Scott, a Scottish judge: “We will know we have achieved equality when mediocre women are regularly being appointed to the bench”. Brilliant.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
People with passion, at all levels of life. I love meeting people who are utterly passionate about their cause, and seem to be able to persuade mountains to move to achieve their goals. They manage to get you interested and passionate too, sometimes about a matter you had never given a thought to, through sheer spirit and energy. If you care about something, tell people.
What have you discovered during your career which you would have benefited from knowing as a student?
Pints of Guinness are not an adequate meal substitute and too much Pro Plus can actually impede your ability to write in the exam. Also…you’ve got to put in the hours. I was gutted when I finally realised this, having ‘winged it’ too many times in my life. Preparation is vital, and a powerful weapon, no matter how smart or talented you think you are.
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.