You edited the Equality and Diversity Code for the Bar. Only 11% of QCs at the self-employed Bar are female. What progress has been made?
Considerable progress has been made since I was called to the Bar in 1982 and joined my first set of chambers as the only woman. However, because women and men are now entering the profession in approximately equal numbers, some believe there is no longer an equality issue. They are wrong. There are ongoing problems of retention of women within the profession and progress to the top of the profession is far from gender-balanced. Both problems appear to be particularly acute at the Commercial Bar.
Some women choose freely to leave the profession to look after their children and I respect that choice. If they leave reluctantly because they believe that they cannot combine their practice with bringing up their children, then that should not be happening.
Women with children (and this applies equally to male barristers who take on the primary childcare role), with or without paid assistance, have to be excellent time managers. They can only achieve this if there is a good, understanding and cooperative relationship with their chambers management and clerks.
Heavy regulation isn’t the answer to greater diversity; but I would encourage those managing chambers to open their eyes to structural problems which may be impeding progress for women barristers and to have the commercial good sense to take advice where there is a pattern of women leaving chambers or not achieving the same success as their male peers. An increase in the number of women at the top of the profession and in the senior judiciary will encourage others. What do you think the effects of recently announced changes and possible proposed changes to the rules for bringing an employment claim to tribunal will be?
The proposed increase in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal has no basis other than for the saving of money for employers and the public purse. There is ample guidance to employers on how to act fairly and employers who do so face little risk in the employment tribunal. I am also opposed to the introduction of any costs regime in the employment tribunal which will have the effect of shutting out claimants with meritorious claims.
Tribunals need to manage long cases efficiently and economically and employers and employees should be encouraged to resolve their disputes by agreement where possible. However, other aspects of the present proposals are retrograde and will limit access to justice. You have undertaken several of the leading discrimination cases, especially on equal pay issues. Which cases will have the most profound impact?
The cases which have had the most impact are the part-timers’ pension (Preston) cases, which ensured that part-timers (overwhelmingly women) were given equal access to pension rights. Employment law moves fast and it now seems almost inconceivable that part-time workers were until recently excluded from pension schemes solely because of their part-time status.
Female public sector workers - or at least those who still have jobs - are seen as the biggest winners from the equal pay cases: although the words ‘big win’ are hardly apt given the level of pay earned by many such workers. I am pleased that progress has been made but am hardly jubilant: after all, this should have happened over 30 years ago.When did you join Old Square Chambers and has it changed over the years?
I moved to Old Square Chambers nearly fifteen years ago, after a similar period as a tenant at another excellent set, Farrar’s Building in the Temple. I moved in order to develop my employment practice in a specialist set, which then had some 30-35 members.
There was a determination at Old Square Chambers to move forwards with the best pupils and junior tenants, recruited from the broadest possible pool, applying focused selection criteria with a view to developing specialist practices. There are now about 70 of us, based in London and Bristol. There are 25 women and members from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I am immensely proud now to be joint Head of Old Square Chambers and of the service we provide. I am also happy to have such a diverse mix of excellent, interesting, entertaining and friendly colleagues.From whom would you say you learned most about advocacy at the start of your career?
Gareth Williams, later Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was for many years my Head of Chambers at Farrar’s Building, was an extraordinary role model. He had a brilliant mind, was exceptionally tough, and had a softly spoken manner with no hint of the pomposity which characterises some in our profession. He was an advocate for widening access to the Bar, long before this was fashionable. What was your route to the Bar? Was there a connection to the law which influenced you?
My father was a barrister in Liverpool. What left a deep impression was his love of his job, his willingness to engage in any debate on any topic, his integrity and respect for others, and the enormous spirit of community with his colleagues.
He died unexpectedly over 20 years ago when a High Court Judge and about to sum up to the jury in the infamous case of the murdered Cardiff prostitute, Lynette White, which was recently in the news again.
Jane McNeill QC was interviewed by Matthew Lawson and Stephen Turvey of LPA Legal Recruitment