Jo Delahunty QC: On the shoulders of giants

How far we’ve come in the pursuit of professional equality and the hard work ahead: Jo’s Bar journey shows how, in a climate of ‘girly swot’ jibes and appearance-not-ability judgments, every step matters and every stance taken can count

If anyone reading this wants to understand the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 as a piece of political and social history, there is a rich seam of text material to be mined. My interest in this piece of legislation was piqued by the superb First 100 Years campaign, created and driven by Dana Denis-Smith. The message I have taken from the panels and sessions I have been part of is the importance younger women in our profession attach to hearing senior women talking openly about their career experiences, successes and disappointments for the benefit of those who will follow in our footsteps to take up the Next 100 Years challenge. What follows is a collection of personal anecdotes to feed into our profession’s reflections on how far we have come since winning the right to be treated as a ‘person’ in the eyes of the law. 

I was called to the Bar at a time of political and social division in society and I was one of the first products of the comprehensive school system. I was the child of a single mother from a working class family where no one had been able to remain in education beyond the age of 15. We had no ‘educated professionals’ in my family. I had no template to follow into A levels, let alone contemplate university.

It took a degree of verve (and sheer bloody mindedness) for men and women of my generation, who didn’t have any knowledge of or contacts at the Bar, to think they could assail the Temple walls to become a barrister. Without St Anne’s [Oxford] as my academic pedigree, I wouldn’t have got off the career starting blocks at the Bar. I had been advised against pursuing it because of my lack of social standing by the solicitors I spoke to during work experience. When I persisted in my plans at university, I was told I would have to get a First to overcome my disadvantaged background and ‘tone down’ my personality to stand a better chance of getting in. I did neither. I secured a pupillage whilst in my second year at university by writing to any chambers in London that had a pupillage fund (I couldn’t take up a pupillage without it being funded) and asking to be given an interview to demonstrate why I was better than my CV might imply. Through the arrogance of youth and ignorance of the hurdles to access to the Bar I faced, I secured an offer for a 12-month fully funded pupillage before I had got my degree, let alone gone to Bar School or passed my Bar Finals. I needed to join the Bar because I was unemployable, opinionated and passionate about making changes for the most vulnerable members of our society. I expected to encounter difficulties through lack of contacts. I didn’t expect that gender would be an issue. That assumption was swiftly displaced.

In my application to join Middle Temple in 1985 there was a compulsory section to be completed, headed ‘Father’s profession’. I did not have any man worth the name of ‘father’. I had an awesome mother. I saw no reason for any parentage section to be part of my application to join an Inn, still less the male line. I was not prepared to give my father a place on any path I intended to take to the Bar: and took my point and case to my Head of Chambers who was as distant terms of seniority as it was possible to be from a pupil. Graham Eyre QC took up my cause. My form was submitted with the section crossed out. I joined Middle Temple. The forms were subsequently changed.

“Sure, [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels”

I was called to the Bar in 1986. When I look back at those early years, few women stand out as role models that I could associate myself with. Lady Hale had started her ascent to judicial success by being appointed to the Law Commission but that was outside my sphere of knowledge; her career was yet to galvanise the Bar with accolades such as the law’s ‘Beyoncé’ (‘Lady Hale acknowledges “Beyoncé of the legal profession” comparison’, Legal Cheek, 25 October 2017).

I had to wait until 1988 to see the first woman appointed as a Lord Justice of Appeal (the indomitable Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss who later became the first female President of the Family Division in 1999). These women seemed very remote from me – and they were. Not just in terms of their background and their rank but also how they talked and what they wore. I started as a pupil at a time when Sloane Rangers ruled the style books for the affluent or aspiring professional. That wasn’t my style. At this stage women barristers were still not allowed to wear trousers in court. It took a sustained campaign by The Association of Women Lawyers for that frankly ridiculous and sexist position to change in 1996.

My state of dress in the 80s and 90s caused some judges to take issue. I was not a ‘pie-crust collar’ type of woman. I wore Mao-style fitted suits enlivened by bold gold and silver daggers of Butler and Wilson jewellery. Going into court, brooch covered by a gown, I thought nothing of it until a judge told me he ‘could not hear me’. Confused, I asked why. The judicial eyebrow raised and the silver brooch on my right breast was singled out the offending inappropriate article. Quite why my youthful chest, swathed in black polyester as it was, could be of any interest to a middle-aged man looking down at me from the bench I do not know. Taken aback, I asked why a silver brooch was offensive when my opposing barrister’s visible and very arresting bold red braces were not. My case was put back. I was by that time a tenant at Tooks Court: a radical set populated by men and women of individuality, intelligence and ‘attitude’. After a telephone call with my Head of Chambers, Mike Mansfield, we agreed I would appear sans brooch so as not to put the client’s case at risk but that a letter of protest would be sent by Mike to the judge. Since the judge was as offended by my attitude I was to his, letters were indeed exchanged. I preferred Mike’s.

I wasn’t alone in experiencing this focus on my presentation. As Helena Kennedy wrote in Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice: ‘When I was a novice at the Bar, I had a judge ask me to put my hair up in a chignon because he thought I was flicking my ponytail at the jury and gaining advantage. Even after I became a Queen’s Counsel, a judge wrote to my head of chambers to complain about my bracelets, which he considered inappropriate for court… (Male barristers festooned with gold watch-chains would never raise an eyebrow.)’

I have often wondered where I have compromised my gender in my drive to succeed at the Bar. Consider this text from a 1978 careers advice book which advises readers: ‘An advocate’s task is essentially comparative, whereas women are not generally prepared to give battle unless they are annoyed. A woman’s voice, also, does not carry as well as a man’s.’

Women like myself and others I have long admired, like Helena Kennedy, do not just ‘give battle’: we invite it, revel in it, fight to win and do so with panache and skill. We dance with words and when compared to a man we can proudly adopt this line (apropos Fred Astaire’s skills): ‘Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels.’

But the voice? I acknowledge I have created a different court voice from that given me by birth or used when I am with friends and family. It’s now an automatic switch: deeper and slower than my Finchley estuary accent. Why did I do that? Because voices matter in court and a male voice gets ‘heard’ more easily than a woman’s. But I do not seek to emulate masculine traits; as a 5 ft 2 woman that would be ridiculous! I still wear statement jewellery to court, save now I have multiple ear piercings to put more jewellery in. It has not been until this year, and recently, that the significance of what we women choose to wear has been embraced publicly by the most senior members of our judiciary: consider Lady Hale’s spider brooch (which now has emojis to its credit). Lady Arden is reported to have said in Cambridge recently that the brooches worn by the Supreme Court Justices are ‘a symbol we don’t have to conform’. I welcomed that comment. Dare to be different.

I wear red lipstick as part of my work uniform. It is a trademark. When I didn’t wear it during parts of the Hillsborough inquests, I would receive texts and emails from families asking if I was OK. But what I wear, as long as it is within our Code of Conduct, is a matter for me. Whether I wear makeup is up to me to decide. I am aware from discussions with junior members of the Bar that if they wear a ‘full face’ of makeup they are subject to criticism that they aren’t serious about the job. If they wear no makeup at all, they haven’t tried hard enough

It is about time that men and women realise that they have no right to judge a woman’s commitment to and ability to do her job based on her appearance. We live and work at a time when an MP (now the Prime Minister) thought it OK to call a man a ‘Big Girl’s Blouse’ as an insult and the former PM a ‘Big Girly Swot’ to ridicule and undermine him. Those comments were sexist and puerile. But for long as they raise a titter we have work to do. 

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