Tag Archives: legal

A Legal Debate in a Public Space: An Evening at St Paul’s

On Monday I went to a law debate at tent city in Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) camp outside St Paul’s cathedral. I had been there more frequently in the autumn, when the weather was milder and I had more time to go to free lectures and engage with people. When I arrived on my bicycle, I encountered a large number of Mercedes and scarily underweight individuals, I was starting to wonder what had happened to the camp. I soon realised that these were the remnants of a London Fashion Week event taking place a couple of yards from the camp. To my relief ‘tent city’ the small tent reserved for debates and lectures was still standing outside St Paul’s cathedral.

After a poem about the law and various disagreements among the occupiers being  about neither “left wing” nor a “political movement”, the debate proceeded. Tom Wolfe (barrister at Matrix Chambers), Sarah Sackman (barrister at Francis Taylor Building)  and Conor Gearty (Professor of human rights at LSE)  stressed the importance of civil action in changing/progressing the law.  The speakers stressed the importance of engaging people in a discussion about social change. Conor Gearty stated that without public spaces it’s impossible to form a protest movement such as Occupy.

Injunction notice outside Paternoster Square stating that the piazza is "private land"

The St Paul’s camp was served with an eviction notice on Thursday, but the protesters claim the  movement is far from over. Occupy London has opened a wider debate on issues of equality, transparency and particularly property. Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral, was the original destination of the protesters as it houses the London Stock Exchange. The piazza was off limits for the protesters as it is privately owned. It had been formerly described as a public space, but as soon as the protesters attempted to move in a sign was put up saying ‘private property’. As public spaces become increasingly privately owned, the owners of these areas can be more selective about which members of the public they allow to use the land.

The ownership of property is so fundmentally important in our culture that it is key to the way we save and spend money. Conor Gearty stated that the right to property was the single most valued right in our culture. Renting property makes little financial sense especially in London, but the high prices of property and proportionately low incomes prevent many people from buying property. Professional landlords who own numerous properties often exploit the situation, and limited tenants rights largely favour the landlords position.

Canary Wharf London

Sarah Sackman stressed the problems of privatisation of public spaces and policing in places such as Canary Wharf. These privately owned areas often exclude members of the public and are run by their own rules, making the use of these spaces subject to their discretion and approval. Public spaces are one of the few areas that allow people to congregate and express themselves freely,  they are essential for communities in densely populated areas such as London. Their decline is particularly worrying at a time where community centres and youth clubs have closed down and when for many people there are not many places to go. Young people need spaces they can use for recreational purposes, without being asked to move elsewhere because they may not fit the profile, or because their presence is unnerving for the landowners.

Occupy London barrister Michael Paget and defendants George Barda and Tammy Samede from the Occupy St Paul's camp outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on February 22, 2012.

The  eviction of St Paul’s protesters raises issues regarding the accountability of the City of London Corporation as well as the ethical implications of privatising public spaces. It also raises issues relating to segregation and selective use of this space. Gated communities, areas such as Broadgate and Canary Wharf and private parks are features that add to the equality issues in London. Such inequality and exclusive land use is damaging for all sections of society. Public spaces are there to be enjoyed by all members of society, without public spaces it would be impossible to effectively exercise basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. It is key to recognise that it is the right of individuals to voice their opinions, it is their right to create a civil rights movement and to attempt to induce progressive changes in the law. Without public pressure, the law would have difficulty in moving forward and embracing reform. It appears that the most valuable thing that Occupy London has created is  a platform for debate and engaging in dialogue. Waking up public interest in politics and social issues and giving people a voice is hugely significant and reflective of our society.

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The First Female Barristers

When I was thinking about which women to write about in this article, I realised that there are a huge number of women I wanted to include for their role in breaking down boundaries in the legal world. I thought about the first female barristers, the first female QC’s, the first female judges all of them remarkable individuals. However while almost wanting to write a list of women who inspired me to study law, and writing a small caption on who they were and why, I decided to focus on 3 women in particular. Dr Ivy Williams, the first woman to be admitted to the bar; Rose Heilbron, one of the first 2 female QCs; and Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and first female High Court judge in England and Wales.

A cartoon of a woman wearing a large barrister's wig, before women were allowed to practise law

The most prestigious positions in law are still dominated by men even today, a QC I once worked for said ‘there are more women in law, but the men are still at the top’ those positions may only come available once the male elite has retired. Undoubtedly this will happen eventually, however women are still being prevented in gaining their fair share of the jobs at the top of the hierarchy. In an article in the Guardian, Lady Justice Hallett expressed her own disappointment at the failure of the judiciary to reflect the society they serve:

“A number of women may have made it to the very top of the profession but, as in other sections of society, there is still a long way to go. For reasons I cannot fathom, I remain the only woman to have been elected chairman of the bar (back in 1998).”

I am not trying to blame the unemployment rate among law students on old fashioned misogyny of course, but when you look at the number of female law graduates for the last few decades and compare it to the sex of judges and high profile lawyers in England and Wales, there are huge inconsistencies. This indicates that the close knit boys club that houses the wealthy white male barrister still exists, at the top at least.

Dr Ivy Williams

One of the first true pioneers of women at the bar is Dr Ivy Williams. She had taken all her law exams by 1903, but university regulations at the time prevented her receiving her qualifications. However, when the regulations in the UK on female students were changed in 1920, she was finally able to graduate along with many other women.

Dr Ivy Williams: The first woman to be called to the bar

She was determined to join the bar now that the laws had changed and she ultimately sought to provide free legal advice to the poor. In 1921 she wrote an article for Woman’s World magazine, stating that she would petition parliament if she was prevented from joining the bar.

However, luckily she secured the support of some influential members of the Inner Temple – the Inn where she was a member and she was called to the bar in 1922. Although she never actually practised as a barrister she paved the way for women to take up the legal profession which was inaccessible and one of the last professions to accept women. She was the first woman to be awarded a Doctorate of Civil Laws and the first woman to teach law at an English university, by teaching law she also inspired other women to go to the bar.

Rose Heilbron

Before writing this article I spoke to my grandma about women in law, she told me about her legal idol Rose Heilbron, who had attended the same primary school in the years preceding my grandmother. I later realised what an important figure she had been in law, especially regarding her law report on the reform of rape laws. Heilbron recommended anonymity was to be given to complainants to encourage them to come forward. In the 1975 law report she also urged for the defence to be limited in their capacity to cross examine the complainant about their sexual history to intimidate them and paint them in bad character.

First female QCs: Helena Normanton left and Rose Heilbron on the right

She was of Jewish descent, from Liverpool and was the prominent leader of the Northern circuit. She was called to the bar in 1939 and she was one of the two first female QCs (then still King’s Counsel) along with Helena Normanton. A calm and collected advocate, she charmed juries and was hugely admired in court for her thoroughness and her style.

Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane

Being a member of the Inner Temple myself, I was quite excited to find so many impressive women have been members of that Inn. Like Dr Ivy Williams, Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and the first woman to sit in the High Court, was also a member. In her biography she writes about finding her way to the bar ‘by accident’, while helping her husband with his legal studies. Her stories of her childhood and her dislike for schoolwork remind me of my own schooldays. Cramming late at night with a torch under the bedclothes, training her memory for the quick absorption of facts, ideal for reading a barrister’s brief that will soon be forgotten again after the case.

Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane: First female judge in the UK

Although she only started her pupillage later in life in 1941 at the age of 36 and she soon began a fast paced and successful career in the late 1940s. After obtaining Silk, she was appointed as the first woman commissioner of Manchester Crown Court, where she was addressed as ‘My Lord’, and referred to in the official calendar as ‘Mr Commissioner, Elizabeth Kathleen Lane QC’ in defiance of rationality and common sense. She became the first appointed female county court judge in 1962 and the first woman to be appointed to the High Court in 1965. She was an intelligent, compassionate and hardworking woman who is credited with finally introducing ‘Your Ladyship’ to the legal vocabulary.

Women who entered the legal profession were undoubtedly faced with a huge number of obstacles and hostility during a time when law was such a male dominated area. They must have been remarkable people of exceptionally strong character. Their determination paved the way for great women that followed in their footsteps to pursue a successful career in law.  It’s funny to think that over half a century later, it is women who dominate law studies at university. If the judiciary is to truly reflect the society it regulates women should also gain more respect and status in the legal profession.