From council house to QC

Published 15th March 2019

I was born in 1965 and given to Barnardos in my early months as my birth mother couldn’t keep me. She was a mixed-race “war baby” who grew up herself in Barnardos and became pregnant by a Pakistani man who she wasn’t married to. I eventually went to a wonderful family in Somerset and stayed with them for the rest of my life. My mum was my mum and my dad was my dad. We lived in a 3 bedroomed council house – my parents, sister and two brothers. We weren’t well-off, but we were encouraged to do our best – work hard, be honest, help others. My dad was a skilled factory worker and my mum went from being a cleaner to a care assistant then manager at an old people’s home.

I didn’t do well academically – let’s say I was a slow burner. I got four O Levels and two unimpressive A Levels. But it was enough to get me started and I ended up at Manchester Poly and got a. 2:1 in English. I’d wanted to be an architect as a youngster, but I had no relevant skills apart from being able to draw a straight line and a love of buildings. So I opted for teaching. Having been persuaded into a summer job in Oxford with my friend, I ended up applying to the University to do my teacher education there. It was just a lark really, but I got in and joined St Hilda’s College. After that I started my career – I moved to London and taught for five years in Hackney.

I’d always been an advocate of sorts – from starting a debating club in my school (which was unfortunately soon infiltrated by some National Front boys who wanted to “debate” my brown skin), to Student Union work, to speaking for my students in all sorts of official situations. So when my teaching establishment had to make a round of redundancies I decided to change career and study law. Having looked at the various legal avenues I decided upon the Bar because I liked the idea of standing up and speaking for people. I knew immediately that it had to be criminal law, and just as quickly that it had to be criminal defence. I knew from the start that I wanted to speak to a jury – as an ‘ordinary person’ myself, I thought that it would helpy voice to sound like what it is – genuine.

It was very hard to get a pupillage after my studies. Many people told me that it wouldn’t be, that Chambers would snap me up because I could tick a lot of ‘right on’ boxes – the word ‘diversity’ wasn’t used twenty years ago. But it wasn’t like, that – I came from an ‘unusual’ background and most Chambers did not take even a first, let alone a second, look at me. But one of them did, and a fell under wing of a wonderful ‘Pupil Mistress’ as women were the called. She taught me everything I needed to know about my conduct as a barrister and gave me much more confidence than I ever thought I could have. After a sod grounding in this small general law set, both she and I moved on to a more politically ‘left’ Chambers, and from here my career really started to bed in. I loved the criminal law and it was so exhilarating to be at a set which only defended (as I had always done). But it was still a small set and all the ‘big’ cases went elsewhere. I was by now committed to a lifelong career as a criminal defence advocate and I craved the opportunity to represent people accused of unpleasant or difficult acts – for some reason the harder or uglier the case would be to defend, the more I wanted to defend it. I suppose that years of doing this are what eventually tooky to Silk.

I decided to apply for Silk because I had done many very serious cases and had been Leading Junior Counsel many times, but I had reached the point where I no longer wanted to “pass on” my most grave and complex cases to a Queen’s Counsel – I was certain that I was ready to conduct those cases myself. And I was right – I was awarded Silk in 2017 and was Leading a murder trial at the Old Bailey two weeks later.

When I look back over my twenty years as a barrister, so many things have changed for women. I was required to wear a skirt at my first set of chambers – so I used to carry one in my bag and change into it in the Inner Temple library toilet. Whilst there was undoubtedly a degree of diversity at the Bar – not least by virtue of the stellar trail blazed by the amazing pioneering women seen here – it was still, even them, predominantly a public school “old boys club”. This has changed so much – the criminal Bar certainly reflects much more the people that that it represents and that it speaks to. But I am only the 389th woman ever to take Silk – so we are nowhere near finished yet, we’ve barely begun.

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