CBA Monday Message 11.02.19
Chris Henley QC
THE PROBLEM WITH BEING A WOMAN AT THE CRIMINAL BAR:
‘You should really think about whether the Bar is right for you’, (Male Judge dealing with an appeal listed in the morning, who wanted to sit on until 5.00pm, to the mother of young children who raised childcare issues).
‘I don’t think I have ever been shouted at like I was by that Judge…completely unacceptable…he acted like a toddler. I have decided to leave the Bar for the time being, a big part of my decision to go is the life I am leading as a very junior criminal barrister’ (young female barrister who e-mailed me setting a series of demoralising experiences. This one related to covering a case for a more senior colleague).
‘I am so sick of our time being treated as totally worthless. To xxxx Crown Court for a confiscation hearing in list with others at 10.30. Message from Judge: he wants 2 hours ‘reading time’ so will sit at 12.30. Comes in to start one hearing. I stand up and say ours is agreed. He barks ‘2.00pm’. No apology to anyone in court for the delay. The Judge came in after lunch at 2.35pm. No apology or reference to late start.’ (Female junior 10 yrs+ call).
(It is important to remember there are many, many sympathetic, flexible, progressive, modern Judges who are just as appalled as us by this, who understand the pressures, and who respect and appreciate us. The deliberate squeeze on court capacity, and the threadbare support and general decay, makes their working lives intolerable at times too).
It’s now half past seven, as I have been writing this, another e-mail has come in from another mother of very young children who has worked herself so hard into the ground, that when she finally took a day off and sought help, her GP immediately called for an ambulance.
She writes: ‘It starts with flu over last weekend when I felt awful. Monday I had a ground rules hearing involving a 7 year old complainant. So I went. In no other job would I have worked. The hearing got done effectively. Therefore me not calling in sick (which I should have) saved a huge cost of court time, and money in rearranging a hearing at which an intermediary and both trial counsel attended. I continued battling on. Tuesday I had a jury out and didn’t feel I could leave the case (it hadn’t sat on Monday due to judicial commitments) So I went. Thursday came and I was feeling worse than ever. there was a mention in that same sex case from the Monday and also a defence 3 handed sentence for a female youth of good character who’d been at court on an aggravated burglary indictment the facts of which had included a stabbing. So I went. I didn’t feel I could not go. That was listed at 2pm. It got called on at 3:50pm. Yes I did say 3 handed.
The long and short of this is that yesterday I finally went out of hours to the gp. She immediately called me an ambulance to hospital looking me in the eye telling me I’d left it far too long and was now quite acutely ill, with a severe chest infection which had caused my usually mild asthma to flare up so I could not breathe. I’m fine, the NHS treated me well and I’m back home with strict instructions to rest. I’ll listen and for once put myself first but it took a hospital trip to make me!!
So I’ll not work next week. I’ll lose money. No one will pay me sick pay. And all those hearings that I did when frankly I shouldn’t have been working have been covered and not rearranged thus saving the MOJ money.
I wonder does anyone in the MOJ realise (or care!) that this isn’t rare or unusual but just an everyday thing the criminal bar does to keep the system running and because they are so committed.
I had intended to limit myself to three messages received in the past week, but you will understand why I included the fourth, most recent one (it will chime with every single one of you). I have received many similar communications over the past 4 months. One or two have had to be pursued more formally. It is little wonder that so many women (and men) are turning away from the criminal Bar; the environment is increasingly hostile. The hours are punishing and unpredictable, often late into and sometimes through the night, the personal sacrifices are huge, fees are derisory, not remotely stacking up for the necessary childcare or breaks, and the treatment from all directions too often is very unpleasant. Is there another profession whose pay has fallen like ours, and who have to tolerate such awful and deteriorating working conditions?
Have a look at one court list today, right at the top of the alphabet: 25 cases all listed at 9.30am with not a single time marking – video links aplenty and two lucky people have their sentence listed last on (what time should they arrive, or expect to finish?). There is a notice in this court’s robing room which threatens any counsel not immediately ready that their case will be removed from the list and be called on at the end of the day, or be taken out altogether. How do you plan a busy personal and professional life around such porcine behaviour? This Judge has been spoken to previously. He was himself off sick on full pay all last week. Oh the irony.
Ambitious female practitioners are often ‘guided’ towards sex offence work; surely the most gruelling, and no longer paid properly. How many women appear regularly in heavy fraud, terrorism and murder trials, or are part of the TC team (no criticism of the incredible dedication and quality of those who are). I observed in a paper I wrote for Angela last year ‘I have recently been in an 11 handed fraud in Birmingham – 18 counsel, only one woman, an HCA, a 9 handed fraud at Southwark – 15 counsel, 1 woman, a 3 handed murder in Cardiff – 8 counsel, no women, and a 5 handed fraud at Southwark – 12 counsel, no women.‘ In part this might be the inevitable consequence of attrition rates for women at 7 to 12 years call, but its not just that.
I have spoken to Heads of crime teams at chambers all over the country, in Cardiff and Sheffield most recently. Talented women are leaving criminal practice. The pattern is the same everywhere. There is a crisis. A quick glance at any criminal chambers’ website confirms it. Even the most successful junior women increasingly have had enough. They can get easier, better paid jobs elsewhere, where they will be supported, be treated with respect and where the conditions are flexible and compatible with family life. Most men want this too.
Its now half past 11 and I have received yet another e-mail, this time more serious so I cannot share it, but on the same topic. A woman being treated monstrously for having the audacity to raise an issue impacting on her wellbeing.
There are organisations now established to support and promote women within the profession. I referred to the Western Circuit Women’s Forum survey last week, and Women In Criminal Law, bringing together the Judiciary at all levels, barristers and solicitors, holds regular mentoring, networking and social events. A Midlands branch of WICL launched last week in Nottingham.
There is too much talk about diversity (I’m getting rather irritated by it), but nothing discernible is yet happening. It is patently not being taken sufficiently seriously. Many of you are suffering, physically, mentally and financially. Behind the scenes at a senior level there are conversations about e-mail protocols, sitting hours protocols, about a determination to have zero tolerance for sexist and bullying behaviour. This stuff is not complicated, so let’s get on with it; I am assured the e-mail guidance will be issued very, very soon. I know there are many good people in senior positions who sincerely want to support you; they need to speak up. There are also many in senior positions who have never changed a nappy, had years of interrupted sleep, or the daily admin of kids, and who practised at a time when the work was plenty and the fees were wow. They all have a choice, to continue to manage an orderly decline and withering of the publicly funded profession or to fight for it. Imagination, courage and a little humility will save us.
Examples of humiliatingly low fees continue to be received. Two senior practitioners appeared for the prosecution in different cases, they spent all day at court dealing with experts (psychiatrists) giving evidence in sentence hearings, one an attempted murder. Their fee will be £60 before expenses. This is less than the guy who comes to look at your washing machine for half an hour, or sorts out (or fails to sort out) your mouse infestation.
In the high profile FGM case the brief fee for the defence silk was £2000, and £1000 for the junior. They estimate that once a daily fee is subtracted for the first day the respective hourly rates for prepping the case were about £10 and £5 respectively. They gave everything to this harrowing case nevertheless.
The CBA Chair and Vice Chair will be at Bank House Chambers in Sheffield tomorrow night. The meeting will start at 18.00, please sign up with Aaron Dolan and come along. We want to hear your views.View more news