Baroness Deech: “Law is just the best discipline a woman can take up”

Published 28th February 2017
Guest post from Baroness Deech QC(Hon)

I studied law at a time when it was not at all fashionable for women to choose this – there were 8 women amongst 150 men in my year at Oxford. I got a place at Oxford on my 9th attempt at the admissions exams for Oxford and Cambridge (one could apply for both then,) I went to a tough girls’ boarding school, which I disliked and was not up to much academically, but gave me certain skills valuable in public life, although it took me many years to appreciate this. I joined the Inner Temple, which elected me a Bencher decades later. While studying law, I realised that I enjoyed talking about law and justice, reform and injustice, politics and law in society, more than the prospect of practice, and I thought at the time, wrongly as it turned out, that as a not-well-off woman one needed contacts and money to get ahead at the Bar. I read for the Bar, and then Jim Gower at LSE mentioned to me that the Law Commission was just starting up and needed young assistants. It was a wonderful start to a career. I was mentored by Lord Scarman and got to see some of the greatest legal academics and reformers at close quarters while being involved (checker of footnotes) in the research that led to the Divorce Reform Act 1969. Those were heady days for law reform: everything seemed possible.

I then had another stroke of luck – moving to Canada where my husband’s scientific research took him, I discovered that a new law school was being started in Windsor, Ont, and that the Dean, the late and distinguished Mark McGuigan, was looking for someone to fill in for him as he had been elected an MP. I got the job and started teaching a class of 100 students most of whom were older than I was, a real baptism of fire. Then we returned to Oxford and there was an advertised vacancy for a law tutor at my old college. I got the job ahead of Albie Sachs, and I have often wondered how his history might have turned out differently had he succeeded rather than me. Again, luck, my college had a nursery for babies, and I was able to return to work very quickly after my daughter was born. I spent 20 years fighting for more nurseries at Oxford – most academic women could not afford a nanny, and childcare is the key to carrying on teaching or practice. I also campaigned for a nursery for barristers in my time as chair of the Bar Standards Board, the regulator. Research at university was difficult as the libraries were closed at weekends, which was the only time one had to write articles; thank goodness for the internet now. The men’s colleges all had far more teaching staff per pupil than the women’s colleges did, and they refused to redistribute teaching posts, which meant that women were going to find it far harder to do research in any case and far more burdened with teaching hours. Law studies were beginning to be more popular with women and we admitted as many as we could in the women’s colleges. That early generation of women law students went on to do fantastically well as partners in solicitors’ firms and as barristers. However I remember in the early 1970s before the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 came into force, my bright student applicants for articles regularly got letters from leading firms saying they did not take women, or only took one female applicant a year. I blacklisted those firms for ever more when giving advice to my pupils. My college happened to be that of Ivy Williams, first woman to be called to the Bar. I took up administration in the university, in part I suppose because it was easier to fit in than research, and I enjoyed it, rising to become Principal of my college. I taught at the University of Cape Town for a little while and became a trustee of the Rhodes Scholarships and passionate about S Africa. My experience in family law and chairing meetings led to my being appointed chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Knowing the law was invaluable in this position, as we had to work within the parameters of the Act. I have never passed a biology exam in my life… I was appointed DBE for this work in 2002. After leaving the university world, my academic experience was useful in my post as Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education; also as a BBC Governor, a post for which I applied after seeing it advertised in the paper. Likewise I applied to the House of Lords Appointments Commission and was appointed a crossbench peer in 2005.

Summing up I can say that one has to reach out for opportunities, apply, volunteer and so on, as opportunity is unlikely to find you behind a closed door. Build on one’s past experiences. Network. Discrimination against women in general, rather than against me personally, spurred me on to try harder to change the settings. Law is just the best discipline a woman can take up.