Women in Law. Give Women an Opportunity and we can Effect Change

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“I believe we should not accept what the law is but strive to make it what it should be”

Felicity Gerry QC is International Queen’s Counsel at Crockett Chambers, Melbourne and Carmelite Chambers, London.

I am an international Queen’s Counsel at Crockett Chambers, Melbourne and Carmelite Chambers, London and I am Professor of Legal Practice at Deakin University. I specialise in serious and complex criminal cases, I teach on a range of international legal issues including modern slavery and I research issues relating to technology & law, women &law and reforming justice systems. I also do some media including TV appearances and writing for The Times.

I have been at the Bar for 25 years, some of which has coincided with raising three children, keeping pets and maintaining friendships and hobbies. I could tell you I dropped out of school at 15 and taught people to ride horses and that my ability to communicate with child witnesses comes not from advocacy training but keeping them from falling off a sharp pony. I could tell you that my school failed its pupils, the male careers officer sending bright women to work as cleaners and that such injustices have formed the basis of my furious determination not to be cowed by sneering judges or snobbish opposition counsel. I could tell you that I did not go to the “right” university and was deliberately humiliated by stale male professors at a University interview and that I am now invited to speak to those colleges that closed their doors because I am now a successful woman who can inspire law students to achieve. However, this would lead you to conclude that I was somehow not worthy to be at the Bar and that I have had to claw my way up. I prefer to tell you that I was meant to be here and that, given an opportunity I can effect change.

It worries me that so many women leave my profession because of the exhaustion of dealing with the male locker room mentality, the pressure of long hours and public duty and the attraction of maintaining a personal life doing something else. I would like to convince women to stay at the Bar and be the best that they can be. I have had some significant ups and downs. Some days I feel like Papillon clinging to the bars of my prison cell in solitary confinement muttering “I am still here you bastards”. Other days I rejoice in my fortune particularly after a glorious legal argument before an attentive court or the opportunity to nail a slippery witness through well prepared cross examination or the exhilaration of delivering a compelling address to a jury that results in a 10/10 point score on paper from the defendants in the dock. I love what I do, when I have the opportunity to do it.

Having an opportunity is not always easy. I wrote 77 applications to be a pupil barrister but only had 12 replies – wrong school? Who knows? Of those 12 replies I had 6 interviews, 4 second rounds and 1 offer. That 1 offer gave me a significant start in a small town called Leicester now renowned for its football team. The work was plentiful and the instructors saw my potential. I will be forever grateful for some early briefs that allowed me to shine. When I had children I had a female head of chambers who made sure that the ship was run with fair opportunities for parents. Still I had more than my fair share of being directed to “women heavy” cases such as family law or cases involving sexual offending. It was pretty gruesome stuff but, rather than bow, I co-wrote The Sexual Offences Handbook containing all the law since 1952. I was determined to do this work as one of the best not just any other advocate. When I had the opportunity to work for the Bar Human Rights Committee my research contributed to changing the law on combating female genital mutilation. When I had the opportunity to live in Darwin, Australia I helped change the law on reproductive rights, I joined the Making Justice Work coalition which broke the story on the Don Dale atrocities for which our group won a human rights award and I helped out on a death penalty case and saved a woman from execution. When I took silk I led the team in R v Jogee which corrected an error of law which had persisted for decades. I ignored the Court of Appeal that said “there’s nothing in this” and took it to the UK Supreme Court. The result was a landmark case that the BBC called a ‘genuine moment of legal history’. When I came to Melbourne I was given the opportunity to lead wonderful juniors defending in two terrorism trials becoming one of the few women to appear in such cases which are often jealously guarded by particular advocates. I also led a team who successfully petitioned for mercy for a young Aboriginal man for which we were nominated for a pro-bono award.

Along the way I have had individual successes, victims of the most appalling rapes have thanked me as the prosecution advocate, I have also received thanks from defendants who have been rightly acquitted after some appalling shenanigans by the State. I have appeared in cases in Hong Kong and Gibraltar and led a team of practitioners and scholars given leave to file an amicus curiae brief in the Radovan Karadzic appeal. Last year I graduated in a masters that I couldn’t afford to do when I was younger and I am now a PhD candidate.

Most of these opportunities I have created myself. Along the way I have been described as “marmite / vegemite” – love me or hate me, I have decided not to go away. I believe we should not accept what the law is but strive to make it what it should be – of course that can mean many things but a system with a core of dignity and respect would be a start and equality for women should not be a task to be fulfilled at the same time as doing the best for a client in every level of court or contributing to novel legal research.

What keeps me going is a terrible sense of injustice to victims, suspects and counsel by systemic failure or unmitigated bias by some actors in the system. What supports me are my family, my wonderful intelligent and eccentric colleagues and my three -legged beagle. Maybe I am related to Elbridge Gerry who refused to sign the American Constitution until it contained a Bill of Rights. Maybe I get my determination from relatives who worked for Prime Ministers or at Bletchley Park or from sticking on a feisty horse that would be shot if I didn’t make it behave.  Maybe I am just me – it is pretty hard being me but, my goodness, I am enjoying myself and I hope that being a QC and a Professor inspires others – I was once beaten in the show jumping by a young woman whom I taught to ride. It is still one of my best days.

Felicity Gerry Image

Felicity Gerry QC is International Queen’s Counsel at Crockett Chambers, Melbourne and Carmelite Chambers, London.

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One Comment on “Women in Law. Give Women an Opportunity and we can Effect Change”

  1. uncutvoices Says:

    Here’s to you, Felicity. This was so well-written and inspiring. Congratulations! And special thanks for your work on FGM!

    Reply

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