Women Leaders: Legally Diverse? A Conversation between Lady Justice Hallett and Richard Heaton

Article by Jennifer Barnett

On the evening of Tuesday 2nd November I was lucky enough to watch the interview of Lady Justice Hallett, one of the most senior female judges in Britain, by the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Richard Heaton. This conversation formed part of the Women Leaders series put on by the Institute for Government in London. Hallett LJ is the Vice President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal, the fifth woman ever appointed to the Court of Appeal, and the first female Chair of the Bar Council. She was also commended for her work as Coroner at the inquest into the London 7/7 bombings. City Law School alumni Richard Heaton is a former barrister who has been the Civil Service Race Champion since 2014.

Hallett LJ described the Bar in the 1970s as a “lonely” place for women. Many sets of Chambers seemed to have a policy of “one woman, that’ll do”. However, Hallett herself was lucky in finding a set run by a man she described as a benign autocrat, who championed female barristers. Hallett said that the female barristers from the generation before hers, as a whole, had no children; a choice between career and family had to be made. As she continued, it became clear that though things have certainly got better, this issue unfortunately remains.

One reason for this, the judge colourfully iterated, is “glittering prize syndrome” or, as she liked to call it, GPS. Due to the career breaks that women took to raise their children, they were falling short of the impressive accolades, the “glittering prizes” that men had the time to accrue. Hallett was keen to state that this can be combatted if those who are making selections look at potential, rather than just a checklist of honours and awards. This is especially important for the judiciary, who are supposed to represent the interests of the British public at large in protecting justice. Therefore every member of the Judiciary, as well as those who select them, should have ongoing training in unconscious bias. This is owing to the fact that some men, Hallett explained, make the right noises but don’t always know diversity in practice. There is a phenomenon, whether by design or (more often) unconsciously, to look for a “mini-me”.

As Chair of the Bar Council, Hallett has employed a policy of going into schools, particularly state schools, to ignite children’s interest in the legal profession at an early age. However there is no denying that legal training is incredibly expensive; the BPTC currently costs £17 500 to complete. How then can social mobility be encouraged at this stage? Hallett’s answer was simply to look to the Inns and accept that their scholarships ought to be means tested. One could argue that you should ignore background and just focus on ability, but she warned that this could make the Bar a very elitist place indeed.

On the subject of quotas, Hallett believes that a critical mass of more than eight women sitting in the Court of Appeal is needed. Certainly she believes in more than one woman in the Supreme Court. She said that the day of her dreams will be when no one even needs to comment on the fact that the judge being appointed is a woman. However, she ended this thought with the realistic prediction that this time will come long after she is gone.

Heaton opened the floor for questions which led to some lively conversation about current UN campaign “HeforShe”. The idea that behind any successful woman is a man without a chip on his shoulder seemed an attractive one to the crowd. Hallett laughingly told us that prejudice against women with children was flat out ridiculous, seeing as one of her female peers, a QC who is married to a fellow QC, has managed to fulfil her position with 6 children under the age of 5! (In case you were wondering how: one set of triplets, one set of twins and another one for luck). If women with children are discriminated against, this could be dangerous to the effectiveness of the legal system in Britain because it would create a mono-culture. After all, “law is about all of us, not just those practicing law”.

Could blind CVs be a good way to end prejudice and unconscious bias in particular? Hallett said she could see the pros in removing someone’s name, therefore ensuring that bias based on ethnicity would not occur at the first stage. However, Hallett was not keen on the idea of removing gender from the equation. This would not be helpful in tackling GPS after all – the recruiters need to understand that some women have taken career breaks to raise children and should not be penalised, because they could still offer a lot to the profession.

We then briefly touched on the Charlotte Proudman story. The room, when asked for a show of hands, was divided as to whether Proudman was justified in taking the dispute public on twitter, although all seemed to agree that the Linkedin comment was inappropriate. Hallett said that whilst she probably would not have named and shamed solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk on social media, she hopes that in this day and age she would have done “something” to show that such a comment was ultimately unnecessary and unprofessional.

One exasperated member of the civil service told Heaton and Hallett that she was fed up with grand rhetoric about diversity and equality. She was involved with recruiting members for various boards and wanted less big talk and more practical methods of getting as diverse of a line-up as possible. Hallett sympathised with this feeling, and said that actual practical support is important. She asserted that mentorship could be key in helping people get the positions they are interested in, and can be a very rewarding relationship for both mentor and mentee. It is important to mentor someone who is not from the same background as you, she said, to stop the “mini-me” trap and also because this is frankly a more interesting relationship to develop for both sides.

I was impressed by Hallett and Heaton’s eloquent conversation on diversity, and providing some practical problems and solutions rather than mere conjecture. Heaton was great at giving concise, insightful questions and allowing Hallett space to give her thoughts and share experiences. Hallett herself is inspiring yet approachable. Although there is certainly a fair way yet to go, I left the evening feeling heartened and with a sense of positivity about the incremental changes being made, albeit slowly, in the legal profession.

Many thanks to City Law School LPC student, Jennifer Barnett, for this review of the Institute for Government ‘Women Leaders’ event. You can see videos of past events in this series via the Institute for Government website.

 

 

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