Professor Nicky Padfield QC is the first lawyer and the first woman to be Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Since her appointment in 2013 the College has also attained a record number of Firsts and celebrated its 50th anniversary. ‘Being the first woman is not important to me. But I’m aware that it does mean a lot to many other people. Glass ceilings are only slowly disappearing. I hope I’ll be succeeded by a stream of women – and not be remembered as the token woman in a long line of men.’

Nicky doesn’t regard the title as necessarily gendered but context is key. ‘When a College porter wishes me “Good evening, Master,” it feels fine. Whereas at Middle Temple the greeting “Master Padfield” makes me feel a bit like a naughty Master Bun, the Baker’s Son.’ (Nicky is also a Bencher at the Middle Temple, where she assists with education and widening access to the Bar.) Nicky became Professor of Criminal and Penal Justice in 2017 and was made an honorary QC in 2018 (‘a delightful surprise, a great honour’) for her contribution to academia and the criminal justice system.

‘As Master, I guess it’s useful being a lawyer: you have to have common sense, a head for complex processes and the skill of chairing large meetings, remembering that your role is only first among equals and not a Chief Executive.’ That said, her responsibilities extend to the welfare of a community of about 1,000 people, including 750 students plus staff and fellows; to setting of strategy for the College; its estate and investments; to relations with government; worldwide fundraising activities and alumni groups – all whilst living within a very tight budget.

‘Being Master of Fitz is a privilege. We offer students extraordinary opportunities. Our students are fantastic. I think we are doing as well as can be expected in terms of widening participation, but there’s always more to be done to persuade schools to encourage their students to apply.’ The Cambridge law faculty is the top-rated in the UK and second in the world. ‘I do get irritated when law firms are nervous of having too many trainees from “Oxbridge” – they should be taking our students if we are doing our jobs right. We are taking very bright students from all backgrounds, and Cambridge gives them great opportunities.’

Should undergraduates study law? ‘There is no reason not to study law. It is absolutely fascinating and I’m a happy perpetual law student.’ But Nicky does try to deter students from reading law if she senses that they don’t know what they are getting themselves into: ‘Borrow this equity textbook and check you really want to read it.’

Ambition, path to law and a supportive other half

‘We have a 1955 photograph of flying boats in formation hanging in the Master’s Lodge. People ask, what’s the connection between Fitz and flying boats? I say: that’s my dad. He was based in Hong Kong and then Singapore in the Korean War. But my early months were in Pembroke Dock. He then taught at the RAF staff college in Bracknell, and my mother became a magistrate and later chairman of the Forest bench. I visited the court many times.’

Nicky doesn’t know when she first thought about the Bar. ‘I liked arguing and wanted to make the world a better place, so I opted to apply for jurisprudence at St Anne’s College, Oxford,’ where she became a pupil of Ruth (now Baroness) Deech: ‘Ruth encouraged us all; a fantastic role model. She had her baby and just carried on.’

A ‘life changing’ opportunity was being tutored by Professor Sir Rupert Cross at All Souls in criminal law and penology along with a fellow student. ‘At the end of the tutorial he’d ring through to the porters for “tea for three and cakes for two”, and we’d chat for another hour. He steered me towards the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge to study postgraduate criminology. But in the long vacation after graduating I was beginning to question my ambitions. I spent a wonderful period volunteering in a maternity hospital in Pakistan where I saw the gulf between rich and poor through fresh eyes. But the wonderful Dutch nun in charge convinced me that I could be most useful by continuing my education.’

"The prison population has doubled in the last 30 years owing to fashions in sentencing (and punitiveness), not because people are ‘worse’"

On day-one in Cambridge she met Christopher, who was finishing a PhD in civil engineering and heading towards work in the developing world. ‘His chat-up line was: “Have you ever been to Kettle’s Yard? I’ll take you on my Norton motorbike!” I’m hugely lucky to have had his support through the passing decades, encouraging and sometimes pushing me onwards.’

It’s clear that family support and responsibilities have played a major part in her life. ‘Women are unlikely to have rewarding careers if their other halves don’t want them to have them. As it worked out for me, when I had child number one, I stopped working (we lived in Nepal); number two, I returned to work half time; and on the arrival of number three, I went back full time. Looking after children is hard work and isn’t rewarded as it should be. Generally, we (families as well as employers) don’t make it nearly easy enough for mothers to progress in the workplace.’

Criminology at Cambridge – with Nigel Walker, ‘a superb teacher’ – was the foundation for much of what has followed for Nicky later in life. But even at Oxford she’d taken part in regular role-play exercises between a group of women students and sex offenders at HMP Grendon (‘I’ve always thought that we benefited more than they did’). At Cambridge her dissertation involved ‘sitting in pubs in Brixton talking about racism and criminal justice; it was a weak dissertation: as I tell any student who’ll listen, a good project is small and manageable – mine wasn’t!’

Bar Finals and pupillage followed. But then a change of direction. ‘The start of pupillage was wonderful but I dropped out after four months. The atmosphere was strangely chauvinist and I felt second class. Christopher was heading for Africa and spoke fluent French and Dutch, so I spent a year studying aid at the university of Aix-Marseille; we then had ten fabulous years wandering the world: Southern Senegal, from where I practised as a barrister in The Gambia; Zaire, where we had nightmare adventures, including being nearly shot and my being detained as a suspected diamond smuggler; then nearly two years in a hill village in Nepal, with our first child.’

Sentencing: from theory, law to practice

They returned to jobs in Cambridge. ‘I was the University’s first Alumni Officer and am proud to have invented the Alumni Weekend.’ Then a College lectureship at Fitzwilliam (‘they took a risk in appointing me because I hadn’t published anything, but I suppose they saw I could teach and had enthusiasm’). She co-wrote with Nigel Walker the second edition of his book Sentencing: Theory, Law and Practice and joined David Thomas in training judges in sentencing. This ultimately led to her being offered a Recordership and she sat from 2002-2014, a rare appointment for an academic.

‘Sitting as a Recorder was fascinating, and certainly enriched my teaching and research, getting me further inside the “real” criminal justice system. I want to understand how criminal justice processes, and sentencing in particular, work in practice, and that in turn has led to my interest in parole and recall. Why do we punish people as we do? As a Recorder one faces some shocking examples – not only IPPs [imprisonment for public protection], but, for example, sending a woman to prison for lengthy benefit fraud when better checks would have stopped it at the outset.

‘Today judges are not really encouraged to take into account the social context surrounding much offending, and there is a real risk that guidelines talk sentences up. The prison population has doubled in the last 30 years owing to fashions in sentencing (and punitiveness), not because people are “worse”. The prison system is not fit for purpose – people serve ever longer sentences in dreadful conditions and then need to show the Parole Board that they are fit for release. Prisoners get stuck in the system but it’s the system itself that is so sticky. And governments seem not to want to listen…’

Nicky is standing down as Master in 2019 at the end of this academic year. ‘I’m lucky to have a year’s sabbatical leave before coming back to two final years as a professor (we still have a compulsory retiring age of 67). But I hope to be teaching students until I’m 90, because I love it. And there’s still masses still to be said about sentencing and parole.’

Anthony Inglese CB was head of legal in five Government Legal Departments over a 38-year career, most recently as General Counsel & Solicitor to HMRC. A Bencher of Gray’s Inn, he trains and mentors lawyers. He studied law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (1971 to 1975).