The campaign started in early 2008 with a group of young women collectively daunted by the prospect of combining childrearing with life at the Bar. The idea of a Bar nursery had been floating around for some time and a decision was taken to try to breathe new life into the proposal with a commercially attractive, well-researched proposal with hard evidence to back it up. Consequently time was spent contacting childcare providers for advice and collecting evidence to see whether there was a sufficient demand for childcare facilities within or close to the Inns of Court.
An online survey demonstrated that there was overwhelming support for the proposal and a significant number of parents with a keen interest in taking up places. Whilst doubts had been raised about whether there would be any interest in a central London facility (given the travelling which this might entail), there was instant enthusiasm for the proposal. Many of those responding to the survey posted detailed comments outlining their experiences and highlighting the need for a proximate nursery tailor made to meet the particular demands of life as a barrister. A number of the responses were harrowing; tales of frustration and despair at the failure of the Bar and certain sets of Chambers to keep pace with the demands of family life and the loss of many talented young women to the profession due to the pressures of the job. These tales of woe hardened our resolve and heightened our commitment to the project.
And so detailed proposals were drawn up and meetings were held for those interested in helping out. Young barristers, men and women, from all different backgrounds and practice areas turned up and offered their support.
The initial response from some of the Inns was not quite what we expected. We were rather puzzled to learn that children were not allowed in Lincolns Inn due to some ancient Act of Parliament and dismayed to be told that, since the proposal would not assist non-parents, it was difficult to justify funding.
But we had some key supporters – Lord Walker, Tim Dutton QC (then Chairman of the Bar), Baroness Scotland, Patrick Maddams at Inner Temple, George Bompas QC and Michael Todd QC to name but a few. They were wholeheartedly supportive and threw their collective weight behind the proposal, helping us to gain the support of the Bar Council in the process. By the end of 2008 we had the support, in principle, of all four Inns of Court; a substantial achievement in a relatively short period of time.
However that was the easy bit. Then the really hard work began - how to identify a suitable building, in or close to the Inns, where the nursery could be situated. In the following months and despite concerted efforts by some of the Inns and their estates managers, no suitable building could be identified. We looked far and wide and, at one point, thought we might have struck upon a building near Holborn, but the location and setting were not right and so the campaign lost momentum.
However in 2010 word got about that Middle Temple might be reconsidering its use of space and, in particular, its café underneath the library. Appropriate enquiries were made and we were permitted to take a look to see if the space might be suitable. It was not far off perfect; central, light and spacious and with good access through to Inner gardens which had been mooted as possible outside space where the children could play. So the project had a new focus and detailed soundings were taken from childcare providers to put together another worked-up proposal. Richard Wilmot-Smith QC proposed the motion to Middle Temple Parliament and, after a hard spell of campaigning, the time came for the Inn to vote.
But unfortunately, despite the Inn making clear it was committed to the project, the space was just too valuable to the Inn and the support for the nursery wasn’t enough to carry the day. And so another period of soul-searching began.
Ironically by this time, those of us that had established the Bar Nursery were facing our own personal challenges. Each one of us had now had at least one child of our own and was going through the process of juggling our careers with the day to day demands of bringing up a young family. That left little time for the campaigning necessary to keep the Bar Nursery project on the agenda.
We are eternally grateful to the Bar Council for taking up the reins at this point. Recognising that the Project needed more impetus, the Bar Council (spurred on principally by Michael Todd QC and Fiona Jackson) took over the search for suitable premises and devoted fresh time and energy researching the available options. Bold decisions were taken about identifying appropriate providers and eventually a suitable nursery was identified, close to the Inns of Court and with the capacity and flexibility to provide a bespoke service for those at the Bar.
This is a massive achievement and one which we seriously doubted might ever come about given the setbacks which we have had along the way.
But we must not stop there in the pursuit of equality at the Bar and in the judiciary. Whilst many more women are now entering the profession it is clear that at the point they begin to have children many are struggling to cope with the pressures this brings. Some of these women were stars of the Bar; scholarships from the Inn and a CV to die for. They overcame all the challenges in the early years – pupillage, tenancy and those lonely years of practice at the beginning, but then they stumble; the financial, logistical and emotional pressures of managing a busy practice with small children become just too much.
The statistics are bleak. According to the Bar Barometer - 53% of those called to the Bar are women, 44% of those who secure tenancy are women and yet only 15.8% of those who take Silk are women. Whilst there may be historical reasons why women have yet to filter up to the top of the profession, there is no doubt that women are leaving right now in large numbers after having had children.
So a Bar Nursery is one solution and a very important milestone, but there is clearly more to be done. Fundamental cultural changes have to occur to make the Bar a supportive place to be in those early years as a parent. In order to achieve this each institution can play its part (for example Middle Temple is now running family-friendly CPD days and useful forums for women). And so we intend that the work of the Bar Nursery Association will continue in order to find new initiatives to help those women who deserve the chance to fulfill their potential as barristers, mothers and (hopefully for some) judges.
Kate Grange, Jess Connors and Victoria Butler-Cole 39, Essex Street