Babies at the Bar

Published 7th March 2017

I was called to the Bar in 1964 at a time when the number of women in practice was barely 100. I was very fortunate to secure two consecutive six month pupillages in a top commercial set and a general common law set, respectively, and was offered a tenancy at the chambers where I did my second six months, I was at the time the only woman member in chambers, which did not feel particularly strange as there were so few of us about. They were a terrific set, busy, welcoming and friendly and the only time I experienced any possible discrimination was when I overheard our senior clerk telling a solicitor on the phone that for the following morning’s case he could have Mr So and So or Mr Somebody Else – “or, of course, there’s always Miss K”. I didn’t protest as I was indeed the most junior member of chambers and thought, perhaps charitably, that this may have been the reason for his reluctance to push me forward.

I was married within two years of starting practice and had my first baby a year later, followed by No. 2 a year after that. (I was in court four days after I had the first one – it would have been sooner, but the weekend intervened – and two days after number 2, with my mother sitting outside Westminster County Court, rocking the carrycot.) Having two babies at the Bar presented some practical childcare issues, as neither my husband, a very junior hospital doctor nor I, with my almost non-existent income (lots of work, but the cheques were few and far between) could afford a nanny and nurseries and child minders were also beyond our means. So I took them into chambers and they often accompanied me to court, when my mother was unable to look after them. I was breastfeeding the younger one and, sharing a room with three male members of chambers necessitated some delicate negotiations – with three hasty departures at four-hourly intervals.

At the magistrates’ court, there was usually a female police officer or even a prison officer who would “mind the baby” while I nipped into court for a quick plea in mitigation, or the very occasional fight. The screams that penetrated the courtroom walls invariably came from somebody else’s child; mine were invariably quiet – perhaps cowed by the solemn atmosphere of the law in action. In the county courts, the friendly clerks would also be happy to coo over the pram in return for chocolates or, usually, my heartfelt thanks alone. It could only last so long. To everybody’s immense relief (I’m sure) I decided to take up a legal civil service post while the children were of pre-school age, intending to return to chambers once they were old enough to go to school full-time. I thought a steady income, which would pay for adequate childcare, was just about compensation for the loss of my practice at the Bar which I had enjoyed so much. My Head of Chambers was most understanding – he had a working wife himself – and the clerks promised me that my seat in chambers would still be there for me when I needed it. 18 years later, and with another child added to our family, I was happily prosecuting murderers, fraudsters and IRA terrorists at the DPP’s department and not missing self-employed practice at all.

However, the school holidays presented something of a problem. I had an enormous room at the DPP and the children could happily occupy themselves with drawing and games at one end, while I got on with paperwork at the other and nobody was any the wiser. There were lots of spare old papers around, with blank backs, for them to use. However I was disconcerted to be challenged by a stipe at a “Section 1” committal, who asked me if “there was any significance in the crayoned drawings” on the reverse of the original documents I had just submitted.

I prosecuted a woman for a offence under the Exchange Control Act, at Staines Magistrates Court one summer, during the school holidays, and having been given leave for the afternoon, we planned a visit to Windsor Safari Park. I took the girls down in the car, intending that they would sit outside the court while I did the summary trial, as they were too young to enter the courtroom. On the way down, I explained the allegations against our defendant, who was pleading guilty. A kindly police officer at the court told the they could creep into the courtroom if they were very quiet and they duly sat mesmerised at the back of the court. When I joined them afterwards, they were shocked by the demeanour of the accused. “What a horrible looking woman”, they said. “You could see she was a criminal. She had a really nasty face and that awful blue hat!” I had to explain that she was the Chairman of the Bench. My defendant was a perfectly innocuous-looking person, whose back was turned to my daughters throughout the brief hearing.

Sadly none of my three daughters has followed me into the law; maybe it’s for the best.

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