Women at the Bar: an historical perspective

Hilary Heilbron QC considers the progress of women at the Bar over the past century.

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you” said Winnie-the-Pooh, whose engaging exploits might well be read to the young offspring of barristers soon to attend the new Bar nursery announced on 16 April. But if instead of, like Pooh, looking forward 100 years, we looked back 100 years we would see a very different picture. Huge changes have taken place at the English Bar over the last 100 years, in particular in relation to women barristers, of which the introduction of the Bar nursery is the latest. As I discovered when writing the biography of my mother, Rose Heilbron, progress has historically been extremely slow, but has accelerated greatly in the last few years reflecting the changes and expectations in society as a whole.


When my mother was born in 1914, women did not even have the vote. Universal suffrage was not achieved until 1928. Ten years earlier, the 1918 Income Tax Act had classified married women as “incapacitated persons” along with infants and lunatics. It was not until 1919 and the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act that women were allowed to enter certain professions and thus become barristers. The first woman called to the Bar was Ivy Williams in 1922.

Enlightenment towards women had not gained any significant foothold at the Bar by the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the year my mother began in practice on the Northern Circuit. She was one of 12 female Barristers out of approximately 300 barristers on the circuit. Although she had gained a first class honours degree at Liverpool University and a scholarship at Gray’s Inn, she had great difficulty getting pupillage. One set of chambers actually explained what others had left unsaid, that it was because “...the other men in these chambers and the clerk would not welcome a woman pupil”. She was frequently warned that women would not succeed at the Bar because of the smallness of their voices and the prejudice of solicitors.

In the 1940s social etiquette had not caught up with women barristers. Women were precluded from entering a courtroom without a hat or being present when cases with a sexual content were being heard. Pronouncements from the bench in open court excused my mother, as a female barrister, leading to headlines in the local paper.

In 1949 my mother became the first woman King’s Counsel together with Helena Normanton (who was the first woman to practice and who retired a couple of years later). My mother had been in practice for ten years and was only 34 years of age with a baby daughter. The Silk’s dress code had to be changed to suit women’s attire. In 1956 my mother became the first ever woman judge in England when she became Recorder of Burnley.

For most of the 1950s and for part of the 1960s she was the only female practising Silk in England and Wales. Many of her cases, which were fascinating, gripped the public’s attention, particularly the murder trials, where the gallows loomed and in which she had a number of notable successes. The rarity of her position as a successful and young working wife and mother led to her acquiring an extensive public and press following, both nationally and globally, no doubt helped by the fact that she was beautiful and hence photogenic. She thus often became the story with glowing articles regularly being written about her. Yet she was never allowed to talk to the press or give an interview, which would at the time have been professional misconduct, and she never did.

Nonetheless her success and fame belied the slow progress that women generally were making at the Bar. She was frequently referred to as a lone star in the firmament. Only two other women took Silk between 1949 and 1969. Such discouraging statistics did not end there. In the mid 1950s there were only 64 women practising at the Self-Employed Bar, increasing to about 100 by the mid-1960s. Nor was the attitude of male colleagues encouraging: women were not admitted to Bar Mess on the Northern Circuit until the late 1960s and not until 1973 to Grand Court.

The judiciary did not fare much better. In 1962, Elizabeth Lane became the first female County Court Judge and, in 1965, the first female High Court Judge. It would be another nine years before my mother became the second woman High Court Judge, assigned also to the Family Division, rather than to the Queen’s Bench Division, despite her vast experience in criminal and civil law, no doubt because she was a woman. Meanwhile my mother had been the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey (1972), the first woman Circuit leader (1973) and she would go on to become the first woman Treasurer of any Inn (1985).

During my mother’s career at the Bar there was no maternity leave, no targets, no flexible working, no compliance officers, and no chambers grievance policies, and there was certainly no Bar nursery, most of which developments are very recent. It was not until 1970 that we got the Equal Pay Act, in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act and only in 2008 and 2010 further anti-discriminatory protections. Professional women in her time just had to get on with it. She took six weeks off from court work when I was born, though no doubt she worked as a busy junior on papers. Somehow, like so many working women today, she managed to juggle home life and work, but it was not easy. Yet it was the pioneers like her who paved the way for others to follow.

My mother used her position to encourage other women, speaking frequently on women’s issues. She criticised the prejudice women met in the professions, arguing that “this conception denies the fundamental fact that skill has nothing to do with one’s sex”, and advocating such reforms as equal pay for women. Most of her achievements came much later to her than they would have done had she been a man, but she acknowledged that as a woman she had to be patient.

Another barrister, the late Baroness Thatcher, when studying for the Bar and recently married, also took up the mantle of encouraging women in their careers. In an article in the Sunday Graphic in 1952, entitled ‘Wake up Women’, citing my mother, among others, as a role model, she wrote:

“I hope we shall see more and more women combining marriage AND a career. But the happy management of home and career can and IS being achieved....

But the name of Miss ROSE HEILBRON Q.C. whose moving advocacy in recent trials has been so widely praised, is known throughout the land.

Unless Britain, in the new age to come, can produce more Rose Heilbrons—not only in the field of law, of course, we shall have betrayed the tremendous work of those who fought for equal rights against such misguided opposition...”

In 1972, at the end of my mother’s career at the Bar, I started practice as a barrister in commercial chambers. There still remained great obstacles to women entering the profession. Women represented only 7% of a Bar of about 2,500 practitioners and only a handful, like me, practised commercial or Chancery law.

My career at the Bar coincided with the slow introduction, in London at least, of what was rather strangely called “the statutory woman tenant”, meaning the first woman tenant in a set of chambers. Yet the Sex Discrimination Act was three years away. The lack of separate toilet facilities was used as a frequent reason not to have a female tenant, a deficiency which I and my colleagues seemed to cope with without problems.

I got my pupillage at Brick Court Chambers (formerly 1, Brick Court) by chance. There was no advocacy training; no interviews, no pupillage awards, (although fees of 100 guineas were no longer payable to pupil-masters). I was the first and only female tenant in chambers for about ten years. In the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, it was rare for me to be instructed by a female solicitor or to find another professional woman at any conference or other professional meeting.

We always dressed in black skirt suits and a white blouse, but never a trouser suit (many male barristers still wore bowler hats and pinstripes). Chambers were much smaller. Cases were shorter and less complex – no doubt partly because there were no faxes, e-mails, mobile phones or computers and, when I started practice, chambers did not even have photocopying machines. We could not attend solicitors’ offices for conferences, were not allowed visiting cards, nor could we market ourselves. When in 1987 I took silk, 38 years after my mother, I was still only the 29th female silk appointed and, jointly with Barbara Dohmann QC, the first female QC practising in the Commercial Court.

I was fortunate in that I personally have never suffered or felt any prejudice from my barrister colleagues in chambers or at the Bar, although undoubtedly there must have been unspoken prejudice from lay clients and solicitors reluctant to instruct a woman. Other female barristers were not so fortunate. In 1992, as Vice-Chair of a committee set up by the Bar Council under the chairmanship of Sir Stephen Sedley, we looked into the problems faced by women at the Bar (then numbering 1,450 i.e. 19.5% of the practising Bar) and in the judiciary. We produced a report “Without Prejudice”, which led to the Bar Council employing compliance officers for the first time. It was an eye-opener to learn from the research we had commissioned what some women barristers still had had to endure in those days, only 20 years ago.

Fast forward to today and we have a sea change: half of those called to the Bar are women. Women currently account for approximately a third of the Self-Employed Bar (4,107 out of 12,674 as at December 2011). Women are represented in all areas of practice at the Bar. There are around 200 female Queen’s Counsel. We now have a woman Supreme Court Judge, several Lady Justices, increased recently by three elevations, many female High Court Judges in every division of the High Court and even more women Circuit Court judges and Recorders.

There are those who say this is not good enough – and rightly so. But it is important to pause and put the progress of women barristers in its historical perspective. We have come a long way: a century ago women were not allowed to become barristers. Even 50 years ago there were only about 100 women barristers in practice. It is only very recently that the Bar has started to attract significant numbers of women, encouraged by equal opportunities and a more female-friendly working environment of which the most recent is the opening of the Bar nursery. I hope it will not take another 100 years (or even a 100 years minus one day!) to encourage more women to enter and remain in the profession or to increase the female representation of the judiciary, but undoubtedly the late blossoming of women at the Bar has historically proved an obstacle to the availability of a sufficiently large pool of experienced women barristers to become silks and judges. This latest innovation from the Bar Council is another step in the right direction.

Hilary Heilbron QC, Brick Court Chambers, is the author of the biography of Rose Heilbron.