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Interview with Karon Monaghan QC: Life for women at the Bar

Related Member(s):
Karon Monaghan QC

“The first set I joined was very progressive, so there were lots and lots of women. I was very encouraged by the women in my chambers and there was a collective sense of support that was very helpful as a junior barrister.”

1) What attracted you to the Bar?Karon Monaghan

I liked speaking and arguing and I thought it was a career that would enable me to pursue my interest in social justice. At that time I thought law was the only thing I could do. I did a law degree because I was able to get onto the course through a special access scheme and opportunities were limited after that if you didn’t have a lot of money.

2) What was your perception of what it was like for women at the time?

I was quite a confident person. I didn’t know anybody at the Bar so I thought class was more of an issue when I was studying.

During pupillage there were very few women and it was a very male culture. It’s difficult to put my finger on the problem but there were comments and a lack of sensitivity. However, the first set I joined was very progressive, so there were lots and lots of women. I was very encouraged by the women in my chambers and there was a collective sense of support that was very helpful as a junior barrister.

3) And have you had any problems since? Such as when you applied for QC?

Not that I’m aware of – I got it the first time I applied and I didn’t wait particularly long. Whether gender has been a significant impediment I don’t know.

I have faced sexist remarks from judges though and have sometimes taken them on. On one occasion quite a long time ago a judge (who has since retired) called me hysterical in court. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind leaving court so I could take instructions because I didn’t think he would have spoken to me like that if I were a man. He left and then came back and apologised.

There’s one incident fairly recently that I didn’t challenge, and I regret it. Afterwards I was approached by a couple of people from the public gallery who said, “he’d never have treated you like that if you were a man.” But the difficulty is, if someone is bullying or rude to you, it can be quite nuanced. It’s only on reflection that you realise that they didn’t speak to your opponent like that or that you come to think that they probably wouldn’t have treated you like that if you were a man.

4) Have you been able to influence the law to improve rights for women during your career?

Never on my own – I’m always part of a team such as with solicitors, campaigners and activists. Others will generally have identified the issues through their campaigning and grass-roots work and then you’re instructed to argue for them in court.  However, I’ve been involved in lots of cases involving women; for example,  where activists have been fighting to get the police held liable when they’ve failed to a investigate domestic violence when a woman has been killed, or when a woman has been raped; when trying to ensure that the bedroom tax is not applied to women at risk of domestic violence if they move home and when trying to get lap dancing clubs closed. At the moment I’m involved in a case where my clients are trying to get a finding that women should not be criminalised for being in (street) prostitution when they will always have been very vulnerable.

Also there are cases where we’ve lost the battle but won the law. For example, with the Fawcett Society, we argued that the annual treasury budget should be subject to a gender assessment. We lost that case, but the result was that in the next budget there was an assessment on the impact of the budget on women.

“And women aren’t just women; we’re straight or gay, disabled or not, Black or white. I’m sure some women, because of other characteristics, experience particular disadvantages at the Bar.”

5) Do you think the bar has changed in the way it supports women barristers since you’ve started?

I’m sure it has changed for the good, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. There’s still a lot of sexual harassment. There are lots of women who leave because it’s not a comfortable place for women, in particular when they come back from having had children. About half of those qualifying for the bar are women and as a generality they have higher qualifications. At about mid thirties they fall out in phenomenal numbers, which is why silks are about 13% women, having entered the Bar at 50/50 for many years, with higher degrees. I’ve been involved in inquests as counsel where we’ve sat from 9 am until 6 pm and then required to do things overnight. If you’ve got childcare it’s impossible.

I don’t know whether women get equal opportunity in terms of access to briefs or money. Probably not – so women are still concentrated in particular areas of practice.

However, I think there’s a greater awareness now. The Bar Council and the BSB have now imposed requirements in relation to maternity leave. I don’t say that’s the full answer because women still leave in phenomenal numbers but there is a cultural shift in many chambers.

And women aren’t just women; we’re straight or gay, disabled or not, Black or white. I’m sure some women, because of other characteristics, experience particular disadvantages at the Bar.

6) What can individual women do to combat these barriers?

It’s difficult because if there are structural problems, what can you do? If the Bar is a place that is culturally and practically difficult for women, it’s difficult for an individual person to say, “I’m going to do this.”

When I’ve sat as a judge in along case (I don’t sit anymore), I have said in advance – you won’t be asked to do anything overnight unless there’s a desperate requirement to do so and if so, we’ll adjourn. We will make accommodations for people with childcare responsibilities and you needn’t tell me which of you it is so you won’t be marked out as the person who might be thought to be delaying the proceedings.

A solicitor put on Twitter afterwards that this was the only case they’d ever been in where the judge made accommodations for those with caring responsibilities.  I doubt that’s true but it shows how unusual it is.

7) So the system could change if there was a desire for it?

Of course, yes. The example I just gave didn’t have any negative practical impact on the case but even if it were to make a minor practical difference- so what? If a six-week case lasts three days longer than it otherwise would have, but the pay-off is that more women stay at the Bar- that’s something we could and should readily accommodate.

To say we’ll have submissions on Tuesday rather than Friday, that’s not a big deal is it?

8) How can the changes that need to be made happen?

The Lord Chief Justice and Presidents of the Tribunals and senior judges in other jurisdictions could issue a Practice Direction stating that a case that exceeds x days or x weeks will sit for four days a week, unless there’s a justifiable reason otherwise. It should state that a court or tribunal is not permitted to sit beyond 4.30 and if it does need to do so, the judge must prepare a judgment stating why. That would allow counsel to do what they need during the working week. There are concessions you have to make if, for example, someone’s about to be deported to where they may be killed, a child is about to be taken into care or you are making a decision on whether to turn someone’s life support off, but they’re exceptional cases and that should go in a judgment explaining why.

You could say if chambers don’t put into practise proper maternity policies or other equality policies, they could be sanctioned by the BSB; for example, a warning to the management committee that if you don’t sort it out within three years there could be issues with your individual practising certificates.  There could be better monitoring on these issues.

It’s not beyond us to find solutions.

9) Why did you decide to come to Matrix?

I came about six months after it started. I thought ‘it’s new, it’s novel’ and it was very small then. I thought it would be nice to work in small chambers where people were doing really interesting work and there were a lot of women.

10) What does Matrix do well to support women?

I think we are really good on things like flexible working and maternity leave. The impression I get is that the attrition rates for women are much lower here as compared to other sets. We don’t, however, get everything right all of the time.

11) Is there anything that you would advise women considering or starting out in a career at the Bar?

I would say to anybody if you like it, do it. It’s a great job. However, it doesn’t suit everyone.  If you don’t like it, choose something else to do if you can. Don’t feel like you’ve got to do it because you’ve put a lot of energy or money in to it if it doesn’t make you happy. You’ve only got one life and every day is a day out of it!

For those who do want to do it – do what you like not what you feel you have to do for a career. You’ll enjoy it much more and you’ll be better at it.  To the best that you’re able (we’re not always able to do this) spend every day doing something that makes you feel good about yourself.