Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC is one of the UK’s most established lawyers; a Bencher of Gray’s Inn and a Member of the House of Lords. A frequent broadcaster, journalist and lecturer, Helena has not only acted in many of the prominent cases of the last decade but has promoted civil liberties and human rights far and wide.
Tell us about your best – and worst – day at work.
The best days are always when you have a victory in a case; the exhilaration is fantastic. There is no high quite like it. Of course, the ones you tend to remember are the big wins that made it to the press like the Guildford 4 Appeal, where my client Paul Hill, who had been convicted of two serious bombings, was released after 17 years in prison. Or Mary Druhan who was convicted of murder and arson and served 11 years before her conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal. She did not remember how to cross the road when we came out of the Court and was frightened by the roar of the traffic. Or Re P which was a victory for the employment of transsexuals that we won before the European Court of Justice.
I could actually list most of the big victories but sometimes in bed at night it is the smaller cases that float back, where someone’s life chances were in the balance and the jury acquitted. The battered women who killed their husbands after years of abuse. The wife of the bomb plotter accused of failing to inform on her husband or the gay man arrested by some prurient vice squad officer as he left a gay club. Juries just know when people are being suborned or bullied. I love juries. They so often get it right because they understand the human condition better than any case-hardened judge.
As for worst day. Well, the worst was probably the first case I ever did, where my client was sent to prison for shoplifting. I had never even been inside a Magistrates Court, as my pupillage had all been spent in the higher courts. She was in breach of a suspended sentence but she was a poor single mother and had kids at home. I had to go to a phone box and phone her friend to fetch them so they would not be taken into care. I cried on the bus all the way back to chambers. I thought I was hopeless and not cut out for the Bar. Sanity prevailed and I determined to make sure that women like her got a better deal. Cases like that opened my eyes to the way courts failed to understand the reality of many women’s lives.
What’s it like to work on two sides of the law – as both litigator and legislator?
It is very satisfying being involved in legislation after so many years as a litigator. It is one of the reasons why I keep doing some cases. I think it gives me a greater understanding of what needs to change in the law but also what changes will not work. For instance, I sit on a select committee – the Joint Committee of Human Rights – and we examine all prospective legislation to see whether it complies with human rights standards. Our reports can make a huge difference to what is contained in acts of Parliament and it makes me feel I have played an important role in developing better law.
It is rather important to have some people who have actually practiced law involved in the lawmaking process as well as non-lawyer parliamentarians. I think the fact that the current Lord Chancellor is not a lawyer is a great disadvantage for the justice system as I am not sure he has a visceral understanding of the Rule of Law.
JUSTICE is principally a law reform organisation. If you were Prime Minister for the day, what would be first on your law-reform to-do list?
As Prime Minister I would immediately enact legislation to half the prison population by lowering maximum sentences, extending parole and hugely expanding community sentencing; I would de-criminalise drugs; I would raise the age of criminal responsibility and start treating children as children; I would de-privatise prisons and re-establish a proper probation service; I would end secret trials; I would allow a whistleblowers defence; I would call a moratorium on terrorism laws and review all those that have already been brought into law and consider their necessity against an extremely high bar. I would make it law that the prosecution of all sex offences and domestic violence be dealt with by special, highly trained units of specialist lawyers and police. And all that would be for starters.
What do you think is the greatest challenge – or opportunity – for human rights law in the UK?
The greatest challenge today to human rights in the UK is the threat to abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. Britain plays a leading role in the promulgation of human rights in Europe and around the world. We are part of an international effort to raise standards in places where human rights are abused in the most horrifying ways. Our moral authority will be lost if we pull out of the European system.
Do you have a top-tip for any student thinking about a career in human rights law?
My top tip is to get experience of law practice and at the same time volunteer in fields where the grimmest stuff is done. From the outset I volunteered at a legal advice centre, which I had set up with a friend who was a social worker in a poor area. I also volunteered for NCCL, which was the name for Liberty in my early years. I was in the Haldane Society and made sure I knew what was going on around the world on issues of law. I kept my idealism alive by being in touch with the real world. The Legal profession can be very enclosed and it is inevitably privileged. My advice is to keep close to the ground.
What would you tell your 20-year old self about your career?
I could never have imagined having the career I have had. At 20 I was still a very green girl from Glasgow but I was full of grit and determination. I also had a clear idea why I wanted to do law. I didn’t do it for the money. I wanted to act for people for whom law was a foreign country. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted the law to change. I would still say the same to my 20 year old self. Do it to make a difference and be bloody-minded in pursuit of those who have little voice.
Some of the members of the Student Human Rights Network will be thinking about joining up as full JUSTICE members. Why did you join JUSTICE?
I joined Justice because it was an organisation that was confronting injustice. It was the conscience and heart of the legal profession as a whole – left, right and centre. That meant it could be powerful. And things are only changed if you have power and use it to good ends.
What’s your favourite JUSTICE memory?
My favourite Justice memory is of Justice’s intervention in the Pinochet case in the House of Lords. I felt so proud that I belonged to an organisation that was arguing against the granting of impunity to dictators. More recently my heart sang when the author Robert Harris addressed Justice and reminded us that when we hear the words ‘National Security’ being used to justify infringements of civil liberties we should all head for the barricades.