I may be lucky enough to have a local tribunal, either in Winchester or in Southampton, and usually I can both drop and collect them, which is a real bonus. On my longer days, ie, in London, it’s a 6am rise, catching the London train at 7.30am, ready to be at the tribunal for 9.30am. I won’t expect to arrive home until at least 7.30-8pm; by that time, the children are asleep and I am shattered. On days when I sit for the Bar Standards Board on the Professional Conduct Committee, I’m home after 9pm with burger and chips on the train home. I will have organised a regular babysitter to come at 6am (on a high hourly rate) and drop the children off at their respective schools, and another childminder to collect the children and look after them until I arrive home. I have had a few hairy moments, for example when my babysitter didn’t turn up at 6am one morning as her baby had been rushed to hospital (I hadn’t spotted her text message sent at 3am). Fortunately, as we were neighbours and friends, I was able to ask her husband to cover while I was on the train organising another emergency babysitter. All before court.
As a single mother at the Bar I have no respite. Being wholly responsible for everything can naturally wear you down. It is a financial and emotional burden, the latter being the greater, especially when Ambreen will always be dependent on me. But these are the cards we are dealt and my philosophy is to get on with it. Nothing comes of moping and self-pity. Many are far worse off. My brain is usually juggling and logistically planning every part of the day, making sure the schools know who is picking up the children, making sure dinner has been prepared the day before, that there is fresh milk for the morning, the uniform is clean, and ensuring a bullet-proof plan if there is an emergency and I am in court. Needless to say, in my house you will find lists scattered everywhere, including the back of my hand. Days can be very varied, it might be a hospital appointment for Ambreen, followed by collecting my papers in Winchester, having a conference, then getting back to take the girls to Brownies or a play date.
Entering the realm of special needs law was not an obvious choice. My pupillage had been a criminal one at Hollis Whiteman chambers and I remained in crime for many years after that. I had instinctively found crime to be “juicy” and was loathe to enter something I was not passionate about.
Things, however, changed dramatically when Ambreen was born in 2005, diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. I took a long maternity break, but kept my hand in and dabbled in crime and family. I also began to dust off the scripts that I had written for TV and theatre, and recently had my first theatre play – My Daughter’s Trial – produced by Kali Theatre. It was shown in London, Birmingham, Leicester and Southampton and was a 98% sell-out.
My passage into special needs began through pro bono work for the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice when Ambreen was a toddler. I learnt about the law through my own fight for the right provision, helping other parents along the way. Two years ago, I decided to focus entirely on this area of the law. Good things always follow your passion. I love my work; even in my spare time, I will read up on the changes in the law, and there are many on the horizon for special needs. The greatest change is in the new Children and Families Bill, due to come into force next September. Children will be able to have statements until the age of 25, rather than 18 years old. But we are a long way from these reforms and we continue to campaign, hoping to work collectively with government to ensure that rights for disabled children are not eroded or removed altogether.
The Bar has always been good to me, like a friendly uncle. I’ve benefited from the Equality and Diversity code, and thrived under the recent direct access changes. The Bar is not old fashioned. Though it may once have acted like a monarch, it has shown how capable it is of change. My chambers are a perfect example. There is no expectation to work during school holidays, no pressure to travel too far. Every adjustment possible has been made for me, without the need to ask. Mothers are needed at the Bar; female perspective is imperative at all ranks, but especially in the judiciary.
Gulshanah Choudhuri is a barrister at 3 Paper Buildings.