Four years ago we were rightly celebrating 100 years at the Bar with greater than ever numbers of women holding senior positions across the Bar and Judiciary. However, some of us worried at the time whether a generation of hard work to break glass ceilings was going to stall. As we mark this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March – and while I still celebrate a seismic shift in the progress of women at the Criminal Bar – we need to re-charge the batteries. The view from the top may seem rosy but further down the future is less certain.

I am the fourth woman in the past seven years to hold the position of Chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA). By the end of 2025, the CBA will have had women continuously in post back to 2021.

The numbers of women and Black barristers in specialist criminal practice at the Bar have, however, fallen dramatically since 2016. This was noted by Sir Christopher Bellamy in his Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid (2021). There are recent signs that more women are taking pupillages in crime but it is uncertain how long they will remain at the Criminal Bar. Both women and Black barristers continue to take up senior positions of leadership, but the pipeline seems to be narrowing. Chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system is one reason for this but increased workload and poor working conditions combined with the costs of studying and training remain the main barriers to women and Black barristers entering – and staying in – the profession.

At the start of 2020 the outgoing President of the Supreme Court was Baroness Hale, the outgoing Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales was Dame Julia Macur, the Chair of the Bar was Amanda Pinto KC, and Caroline Goodwin KC was Chair of the CBA. Today, while we can celebrate the first ever Lady Chief Justice, Dame Sue Carr, it wasn’t until late 2023, when Lady Simler joined Lady Rose in the Supreme Court, that we could count two female justices among the 12 sitting in the UK’s highest court.

We cannot let all the hard work be undone. If we can’t nurture women’s collective talent at the Criminal Bar, half the population of this country will not be properly represented – from the junior Criminal Bar right up to the senior Judiciary.

The current RASSO crisis

I have witnessed increasing numbers of RASSO (rape and serious sexual offences) barristers, including many women, turning away from this work due to a combination of poor remuneration and the heavy toll these types of cases take on an individual barrister’s wellbeing and practice. From the other side of the fence, having been involved in negotiating additional funding for the Criminal Bar as CBA Vice Chair in 2022/23 and now as Chair, I am in constant meetings discussing ways to improve things for the Criminal Bar, the criminal justice system and for the public. Criminal barristers have never been in such high demand, but I do feel frustrated at the slow progress. The backlog in the Crown Court is sitting at approximately 65,000 cases, double what it was just five years ago. Of these almost 10,000 are RASSO cases that call for specialist counsel.

I hope that what I have to say about my career at the Criminal Bar will encourage people from ordinary backgrounds like mine to undertake a career in publicly funded criminal work, but I recognise that in the current climate this is not easy. I did build a career conducting RASSO cases and achieved silk based on this important work. My message remains that wherever you are from and whoever you are, if you have a commitment to access to justice and a strong work ethic, the Criminal Bar is still for you.

Thirty years’ public service at the Criminal Bar

My journey to taking silk and career since may help others to believe that working as a specialist criminal barrister in public service can be fulfilling and worthwhile, with opportunities to contribute to the justice system across a range of leadership roles.

I was brought up in Penge, South London until my family moved to Croydon. I attended a state school, Coloma Convent Girls’ School, and went from there to Leicester University to study history. I was called to the Bar in 1992 after completing a Diploma in Law at City University and then Bar Finals (Sir Robert Buckland was in my tutorial group). I initially trained in pupillage in two sets of chambers, one in mixed common law and then criminal before being offered membership of a chambers (‘tenancy’) in 1994.

Pupillage was hard work. During my first six months’ training in civil practice I was in chambers early every day working on papers and drafting documents. While my pupil supervisor (‘pupil master’ back then) was wonderful there was still misogyny in the clerks’ room. I was told when I announced that I was newly married and pregnant that the Bar was ‘not for people like me’. In 1992 women were still not allowed to wear trousers in court, and the courts were male dominated and male orientated. During my early years in practice, I managed to survive through unhealthy amounts of hard work, determination and belligerence.

As a member of chambers I continued to build my practice specialising in criminal work and remember travelling down to Gloucester Crown Court in the early hours of the morning in order to be at court on time. In early practice, I was a mother of a toddler and a new baby, and it was a struggle managing parenthood while travelling such long distances, often at short notice. Long drives in the early hours and long days spent at court away from home. I needed to build my reputation and practice so I would go wherever the work took me. I became resilient but I have not forgotten how hard it was on my family, particularly my children who rarely saw me. I have made my peace with the older ones now. The two younger ones I have been fortunate to see more of, as I am more senior and the pandemic allowed me a break.

I became a specialist RASSO advocate in 2002 and my practice was predominantly prosecuting and defending in serious sexual crime.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was pretty much automatic that as a woman you would be instructed in sexual offence cases. It became all I did and, over time, the stress of conducting back-to-back cases involving sexual abuse of women and children took its toll. By about 2013 I started to feel that I could not get up the next morning to go to court on another rape case and planned to leave the Bar. After all the years of training and practice, working with vulnerable witnesses and defendants, I felt I was letting the public down as well as my family who had supported me constantly. In the end, a couple of judges happened to ask me why I hadn’t applied for silk. So I applied, was awarded silk and stayed at the Criminal Bar.

The day I became the 376th female barrister appointed Queen’s Counsel (now King’s Counsel) was the proudest day of my professional life. Luckily all five of my children were allowed to come to Westminster Hall as well as my parents. At difficult times, I think back to that day in 2017 as I stood alongside colleagues from Bar school in our long wigs and shiny buckled shoes. It was like starting school in a new uniform. I remind myself how fortunate I am to belong to this profession and to have been recognised for the work I have done. I now conduct a broad range of serious criminal offences including murder, manslaughter, drugs and trafficking cases, terrorism and fraud, as well as RASSO cases that call for a silk.

Career for all seasons

To me, the best advocates in court are those who are able to manage cases with the most difficult evidence. Cases that involve sexual violence often have the most traumatised witnesses and degrading subject matter. Counsel must take care over every question and every word they say. The barristers conducting these and other cases in our criminal courts are highly skilled and trained individuals presenting evidence, applying the criminal law and managing the emotional environment in court. It is a career hard won and one that provides the prospects of recognition as King’s Counsel and development towards a role in the Judiciary.

Nevertheless, underfunding and poor conditions have forced significant numbers of women to leave criminal work, especially RASSO. Women, in particular, should not be expected to build successful practices based only on onerous and poorly paid RASSO cases. Remuneration and respect are urgently needed to enable RASSO counsel to rise.

The proportion of female KCs has increased and female pupils outnumbered male pupils in 2023. Now should be a good time to come to the Criminal Bar. There is work that needs to be done. In order to supply a pool from which a more diverse Judiciary can be drawn, we will need more women to train, pursue a career and stay at the Criminal Bar.

I have found my career to be all things to me – challenging and worthwhile, stressful but rewarding – and importantly the camaraderie at the Criminal Bar, which was never more evident than at the demonstrations during the barristers’ action, reminds me every day that I work alongside a band of diverse professionals who are devoted to our criminal justice system. I am truly privileged to serve alongside them and would encourage anyone with justice in mind to join us at the Criminal Bar. 

This article was first published on for International Women's Day 2024.