Karon Monaghan QC is one of the leading advocates in the country. She has acted in numerous Supreme Court cases over recent years including significant decisions on the rule of law (R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor), equality (R (Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for Education; Essop & Ors v Home Office) and has written the authoritative Monaghan on Equality Law. Over a couple of hours we discuss the class ceiling, the glass ceiling, 100 years of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Judge Judy.

KY: Let’s start with the obvious question: why did you decide to become a barrister?

KM: Law was the only course I could get on to! There was a special entry scheme in those days for people without formal qualifications. I did a study skills course and then got on to a law degree course, but I didn’t know any lawyers and didn’t have any particular ideas about being a practitioner. Then I learnt about a career in the law and the distinction between barristers and solicitors. I liked speaking and I liked arguing so I thought the Bar would be a good fit.

KY: You are well known for your work on equality law;, but how did you start practising in the area?

KM: After pupillage, I went to Brent Law Centre in Willesden where I did lots of equality and discrimination law. In those days, law centres were quite political, and helping members of the community, trade unions, and women’s and community groups was a very important part of their work. This fosters a wider understanding of social justice and the law’s place within it. Of course, the law isn’t the primary mechanism for achieving social justice, but it can operate as one of the tools.

One of the best cases during my time at Brent Law Centre was a dispute concerning Black train drivers. It was an equal pay race claim – the claim was of systemic inequality in pay. It was a big win and I remember there was a great party!

It turns out Karon likes to dance and sing along to her Whitney Houston (I Wanna Dance with Somebody) and Nina Simone (I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free) favourites.

KY: What’s your favourite memory of pupillage? And the best advice you were given?

KM: I had good fun during pupillage. I went to John Hendy’s place (now Old Square) to do the first part of my pupillage. My pupil supervisor there was a nice man and very supportive. I then went to Tooks Court Chambers. There were a lot of women at Tooks Court and we spent a lot of time – usually supportively – arguing and I loved that. I’m not sure I was given express advice, but what I learned from watching others around me was to build a practice around work that you are committed to and that you like if at all possible.

I find out that Karon’s daughter was eight years old while Karon was doing pupillage, so we inevitably digress to talk about that juggle... then neatly segue onto advocacy tips:

KY: How do you prepare for court advocacy?

KM: I prepare in a very methodical way. First, I read through the papers. Then, armed with different coloured stickers and pens, I read through them again, marking up those pages and authorities that I will most likely want to refer to. Next, I will prepare a script for the hearing. I don’t tend to use the script once I’m in court, but at least if it all goes horribly wrong I have something to say. It’s like a comfort blanket. On the day of the hearing, I will get up early and do my best to memorise the arguments.

KY: What is your most significant case memory?

KM: That’s a really difficult question because the cases are significant for different reasons. If you have a mother cuddling you because you got a result in an inquest that recognises the experience of their child before death, that stays with you for a long time. If you get a result that changes the law, that also stays with you but in a different way.

The Supreme Court judgment in the Unison challenge was blinding. We knew it was going to be significant. The first hearing was on the very day the Fees Order came into effect. We were prepared for not winning at first instance or in the Court of Appeal. It felt like a Supreme Court case because it was an important constitutional case about the rule of law; once the State starts eating away at access to the courts and access to justice, then the courts are likely to require pretty strict justification.

If we’re talking about courtroom memories, the first instance hearing was absolutely horrible. I won’t go there for various reasons… but the Supreme Court hearing was great. This was one of those cases where there was a real team – solicitors and counsel really pulling together. So it’s memorable for that reason too.

KY: What difficulties do women face at the Bar?

KM: It’s important to recognise that things have improved. There have been positive initiatives. Parental leave, for example, is crucial because the attrition rates at the Bar are so high for women, and that is often to do with pregnancy and childcare. Sexual harassment is also being tackled, but it’s still out there and much remains to be done. I think, too, that some women still have the feeling that courts are less likely to be convinced by their voices.

But my own experience is that the class ceiling has been more significant than the glass ceiling. That’s not to say I haven’t experienced different treatment on the basis of gender, but I became more conscious of class when I became a barrister. I was seen as an interesting novelty because of my background. I also received some patronising treatment and became aware that my accent was different to most barristers. I wasn’t conscious that I had a particular accent until I came to the Bar where it was made clear that I did.

KY: What changes would you like to see in the profession?

KM: First, get rid of the ridiculous clothing, and the language [she laughs]. I would also like to see it more accessible to people from less typical backgrounds. Chambers need to recognise that formal qualifications are not necessarily an indicator of how good a barrister a person might be. Of course, A levels can show intellectual ability and an ability to work hard. But if someone has relatively low grades, from a terrible school and nobody in their immediate or extended family has been in higher education, then even low grades might reflect the qualities we want at the Bar – and other qualities too. There are people who have to mitigate the effects, and face the distress, of serious family poverty. How are we providing access for those people? How are their achievements measured in context?

Inequality in education is one of the real problems; the barrier to entry to the profession in academic terms is set so high and levels of education for children so unequal. When I did pupillage at Tooks Court, not everyone had great degrees. That seems quite inconceivable now.

KY: You sit at the International Labour Organization (ILO) which has recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary. How did you get appointed? And what does it involve?

KM: I sit as one of the international experts on the ILO’s Committee of Experts. We can’t make a determination on individual complaints like UN treaty bodies, but the expert group has what might be described as a quasi-judicial function. It scrutinises States’ reports for compliance with the ILO Conventions and makes recommendations. Experts also carry out missions to states to gather information and to investigate compliance with the Conventions. I have been on two missions: one to Bahrain to examine its discrimination laws and one to Bangladesh to look into the working conditions of those, primarily women, working in the garment industry.

Dame Laura Cox, also an equality lawyer and then a High Court judge, had come to the end of her 15-year term as an expert, and she suggested me, among others, as a possible replacement. I was one of the people included in a long list because of my experience in equality and employment law. Representatives from the ILO came over to conduct interviews and I was ultimately appointed.

KY: Why is the ILO important?

KM: As an international body, the ILO ensures that States are complying with their obligations in relation to issues such as the right to work, the right to strike, the trafficking of women and children. These are areas where the ILO has had a real impact. There have been improvements in relation to the rights of trade unions, labour inspections, supply chains and the exploitation of child labour, for example. The Committee has a balance of expertise on it. Although we all have overall knowledge of the Conventions, it’s important to have expertise in particular areas, along with regional and geographical breadth and a broad spread of languages, on the Committee.

KY: And out of work, what’s your favourite film or courtroom drama?

KM: I saw a brilliant film last night, Parasite. But my favourite programme is Judge Judy. If I had another life, I would like to be the UK’s Judge Judy. Can you give that a plug?

When she’s not watching Judge Judy or in Geneva for the ILO sessions Karon, it turns out, is studying for a Masters in politics.

KY: Why take on yet another challenge?

KM: I’ve been doing the job for 30 years and I wanted a fresh challenge, so I enrolled in a Master’s degree course and study in the evenings. I wanted to learn something about the theories underpinning much of the work we do.

KY: As lawyers who work to advance gender equality, what areas do you think we should be looking at? Where should our legal focus be?

KM: We need to ensure that groups of women are not falling outside the areas of work we do to promote women’s rights; women who are the most vulnerable and most marginalised and those whose treatment is heavily racialised, for example. I do work relating to domestic workers which is a paradigmatic gender and race issue. I think as feminist lawyers we need to think about our other feminist sisters. The issues we have tended to focus on are very important – rape, domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, for example – but we need to make sure that we focus on women whose conditions and experiences are not similar to our own. I have been pregnant and may have been subject to unequal pay, but I’m not going to be trafficked into domestic servitude, groomed and trafficked to Syria, or have one of my family members taken into care.

Look at the case of Shamima Begum – she was groomed and trafficked as a child. Her treatment has been heavily racialised and gender-based and we have to ask why immigration lawyers alone are involved in that sort of work. I think we practise too much in silos. We need to think about the intersection of race and gender, and not forget those women whose experiences are seen through the lens of immigration and nationality law – that is, based on their race – and work together as lawyers across disciplines much more.