Cross-examination: an interview with Helena Kennedy, barrister, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords

By Sally Bibb

To shine a light on the state of the UK criminal justice system and the motivations and ambitions of those who work in it, we’re interviewing stakeholders across justice organisations – from senior leaders to frontline staff.

Helena Kennedy
We interviewed Helena Kennedy, barrister, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords

This article contains references to domestic abuse and violence against women and girls.

What’s your involvement with the justice system?

I’m a barrister and Labour Member of the House of Lords. I’ve spent most of my career working for law reform, especially related to sexual and domestic violence and civil liberties.

I've done lots of quite controversial cases over my life and now a lot of my work is international.

I’m Director of Human Rights for the International Bar Association. My most recent work has been to evacuate women who are judges and prosecutors from Afghanistan because their lives are in danger.

What was your first job in justice and what originally motivated you to work in the justice system?

I qualified at the bar 50 years ago. When I started only 5 percent of practitioners were women, so was a very rare bird. I’m also from a working-class background which made me rarer still.

But I was really determined, and I was very clear, I wasn't coming into law, because I wanted to make money. I was doing it because I wanted to work on behalf of people who were frightened by the whole idea of law. People who were afraid of going into courts or getting their rights or seeking justice where something had happened to them - for example in the workplace or with their landlord.

I became involved in giving advice at the first women’s refuge. We started looking at how we could try and reform the system to have the courts and the police deal more seriously with what was happening to women inside abusive relationships.

I became very active and vocal about reform in the courts for women. Now, 50 years on, we’ve evolved the law in quite a considerable way. There’s still a way to go. But we have managed to persuade judges that abuse of women impacts on children too. The courts now understand that better. Previously they would say things like, “well, he may hit his wife, but he doesn't hit his children, so he should be allowed to come around and visit.”

I remember a senior woman saying to me: ‘don’t rock the boat’. I did not take that advice. We could be waiting forever if we didn’t rock the boat.”
Barrister, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords

What gives you cause for optimism in the justice system?

It’s remarkable that in most law schools now, well over half of the of the intake are women. And that creates a shift because it changes the nature of discourse.

When lawyers and judges are talking about issues that impact women these things, if there are women's voices, and enough variety of women's voices, then you get change. In the early days, it used to be that there would be one or two women. And those women would often have learned to play the game in the same way that the guys played. So, they would learn the rules of how you did things from the man, and often were not supportive of other women.

Some accepted the status quo and didn't want to change it. I remember a senior woman saying to me: “don't rock the boat”. I did not take that advice. We could be waiting forever if we didn't rock the boat.

I really do think the change we're seeing is being brought about by the presence of women. Women in all their diversity. Older women, younger women. Women who are working class and middle class. And intersectionality. So, you get that great richness that comes from lots of different kinds of people. And I think that enriches the law and the quality of what's delivered.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever had?

I had some really great male mentors, men who really were believers in equity and fairness. And if they saw talent, they encouraged it.

I was mentored at school, by a great teacher who taught me debating. I think it’s really important for women to gain the confidence to speak in public.

He encouraged me to take part in the debating society, which gave me the sort of confidence to get on my hind legs and debate an issue with someone from the opposite position.

I remember the first time I ever went we debated the death penalty. You’ve got to remember this would have been in the early 60s, just at the point we were getting rid of the death penalty in Britain. He told me I’d be for the death penalty. I replied that I didn’t want to be because I didn't approve of it.

He explained that debating is about imagining how somebody would argue a case and I had to make that leap of imagination. Of course, in many ways, it prepares you to be a lawyer. You have to sometimes persuade the public of this, because you're representing as I did, for example, people who were accused of terrorism in relation to the Irish troubles or in terrorism in relation to Islamic jihadism, or espionage.

There is the common assumption that you're representing people because you're on their side, and believe the same things as them, when in fact, what you believe in, is the rule of law. You’re making sure that people get proper representation. And that keeps the legal system true.

If you could fix one problem in the justice system what would it be and why?

One thing is you have to have independent judges and independent lawyers. Once they're only delivering what the state wants them to deliver, we're in serious trouble.

Look at what’s happening to women in Afghanistan just now. Girls and women, not getting an education, not being allowed to go to school or to university, and women not being allowed to participate in public life. There are no women now in the justice system in Afghanistan. For me, that's gender apartheid.

You can’t have a civilised society without a really good justice system. And you mustn’t separate justice from law.”
Barrister, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords

What keeps you going in the face of the dreadful things you encounter?

Partly it’s because I love what I do. And I really believe that law matters. It’s fundamental. I believe that you can't have a civilised society without a really good justice system. And you mustn't separate justice from law – sometimes that can happen. For example, there are some countries in the world with no independent judiciary, so if you're a lawyer who argues too strenuously for your client, you can end up in prison yourself.

As for coping with the pain of it. I learnt quite early on that you have to find a place in which to put the pain. I often did cases where I saw real human suffering, particularly of women and children. I learnt to close down that part of my life and immerse myself in my family, music, or reading to take myself out of that place of pain and suffering.

What would you like to look back on and say you’ve achieved in relation to justice?

Making the argument for an understanding of women's life experience and getting that into the legal system in a serious way is what I feel I’ve achieved. I started talking about that and writing about it before anyone else did.

I felt strongly that if this institution was not capable of changing, we would never see true equality for women. By equality, I'm not talking about sameness. I'm talking about treating people with dignity and respect. That's where I would like to think I might be remembered – for giving a voice to women in our society.

I remember in my 30’s I used to do interviews about the law. I was pretty good at talking in language that was accessible, so people could understand. I could explain it clearly in a way that’s not mystifying, as if it's some sort of magical thing.

What advice would you give to us, when we're in situations that call upon us to be courageous and stand against something that is wrong?

Sometimes you have to just stand up, square your back and say, “this is not okay”. It's always better to do it in a way that isn't in anger but shows your humanity. Sometimes let me assure you, I get very angry, and can be quite frightening.

The other thing, I always tell women to say yes to the things that stretch your capacity and your opportunities. Because this often makes you better at your main job and can open doors to things you would never imagine you might have been able to do.

I was invited to present a television programme. And of course, I thought I'm not going to be able to do that. I was quite frightened at the idea. But I said yes.

It taught me that by saying yes, you can find out things about yourself and expand your own horizons and abilities in a way that was revelatory to me.

I now always encourage women to say yes even to things that frighten them a bit. Trying what you fear may take you down interesting new roads.

About the authors

Sally Bibb PA strengths and talent expert

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