Kath Goddard gained minor fame after being pictured smoking in her legal robes last month. Now the new QC is opening up about her extraordinary career in public for the first time. Chris Burn reports.
For more than 30 years, Kath Goddard has let her work in the criminal courts - including representing England’s youngest-ever convicted defendant - speak for itself. But after a picture of her with a cigarette wearing her robes and horsehair wig after she had just been appointed as Queen’s Counsel was featured in The Times last month and turned her into something of a minor celebrity in legal circles, Goddard is sitting down at her Sheffield chambers to give the first ever media interview about her extraordinary career.
The striking picture of the ‘smoking QC’ attracted much attention online for showing a human side to barristers and interest about the person in the photograph. Commercial barrister James Watthey pithily summed when the general reaction when he said: “Smoking is terrible and yet this photo is just wonderful.”
Goddard, who is joint head of chambers at Bank House Chambers, says while “99.9 per cent” of the reaction to the photograph has been positive, the sudden attention was something of a mixed blessing. “It is embarrassing to be honest,” she says. “But it shows whatever letters you get, whatever status you have, we are human. Criminal law is all about humanity and the people. I had just had two hours of the most stressed I had been in my whole career. I came out and went for a fag. As soon as I saw the photographers, I whipped the cigarette out of my mouth but it was too late, the damage was done - within 30 minutes of being a QC. If I had been a bloke with a great big fat cigar, nobody would have said a thing.”
Goddard grew up in Beverley as her mother Kate was an ophthalmic surgeon who worked at Hull Royal Infirmary, while her father Mike was a sea captain. Her interest in law came about through her mother, who decided to do five-year legal training in addition to her demanding full-time job. Goddard says her mother’s legal studies piqued her own interest in the profession and she decided to pursue it as a career. “We graduated the same year but she got a better degree than me,” she says. “I couldn’t stand the competition.”
Goddard went to Keele University in Staffordshire but was determined to return to Yorkshire - and in particular her spiritual home of Sheffield, where both sides of her family hail from. She began a pupillage at the now-defunct Fig Tree Lane Chambers and she still clearly remembers the first case she handled on her own. It was at Rotherham Magistrates Court, prosecuting a driving without due care and attention charge. “I was terrified. I can still remember the date - December 6, 1987. It was a really cold morning with a hard frost and I was living in Beverley with my parents. The defendant didn’t appear and the case was proved in his absence. It was finished by lunchtime and the chairman of the bench wished me many happy returns. I remember driving back afterwards thinking how pretty it looked.
“From very early on, I understood it was a massive privilege to be either representing defendants or prosecuting cases. I liked the fact that somebody always went away happy. Whereas in other aspects of the law, certainly in the family stuff, I never got that feeling. It was compromise after compromise and nobody was happy. In civil practice, I just didn’t have that connection with people that I enjoyed and valued.”
She says that while there were fewer women working in the justice system compared to today, she found that by the late 1980s female lawyers were judged on their abilities. “Certainly in the South Yorkshire courts, the attitude was very much ‘we don’t care if you are a woman or a man - if you are doing your job properly, you will be respected’. I really benefited from all the women who had come before in setting that perception.”
Goddard moved to Bank Street Chambers in 1990 as she sought the chance to do more Crown Court work. She recalls feeling “completely out of my depth” on one of her first cases, defending a schoolteacher accused of having sexual activity with a pupil.
She says she was suffering a heavy cold when she started her cross-examination of the complainant at 12.30pm one afternoon, hoping to make it last until lunchtime at 1pm so she could then persuade her client to change his plea to guilty as the evidence against him appeared to be so strong. But he insisted he was not guilty and in the afternoon she “took the gloves off and cross-examined properly” - going to highlight important inconsistencies in the complainant’s story and contributing to the jury returning a not guilty verdict
She says barristers are often asked how they can defend suspected criminals and cross-examine alleged victims. “My job is to put my client’s case,” she says. “I’m always very conscious whatever side I am working for, I’m questioning a human being. I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror. It is for a jury to decide if someone is guilty or not against a very strict legal definition.”
Perhaps the most notable case of Goddard’s career has been representing the youngest-ever defendant in England to be convicted of a crime. The 10-year-old and his 11-year-old brother were given indeterminate sentences after attacking, torturing and robbing two other young boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire. When the case came to court in 2010, a child protection expert said Goddard’s client was at risk of becoming “a seriously disturbed psychopathic offender” unless he was properly treated.
In 2016, the two brothers were granted lifelong anonymity, with the younger one’s acknowledgment of the “extreme gravity” of his offences and feeling himself to be “a completely different person” a factor in the decision.
Goddard says she saw her client gradually change over the 15 months she dealt with him “from somebody who had no real understanding of boundaries and consequences of behaviour” to understanding “everything he did had consequences and taking responsibility”.
“To see the change in that 15 months was a very satisfying thing and to think I had contributed even a small part to that. I never promised him anything I couldn’t deliver but if I said I could do something, I would do it. He had somebody setting boundaries and sticking to them. I often wonder how he is doing now but equally I often wonder how the victims of the crime are doing.
“It was the justice system working. It was the secure care environment and the care professionals and the compassion they showed. It wasn’t without boundaries, it wasn’t patting a little boy on the head and saying it doesn’t matter. It was giving him the skills to face up to the responsibilities of his actions and to do it in a safe environment.”
Goddard has an effective but rather unusual coping mechanism when working on particularly tough cases - shovelling horse manure. “I have a friend with a farm and if I have had a particularly rough day or a particularly rough week, I go and help muck out 40 horses at the weekend. You are working with animals who don’t care what you do for a living, they just care whether their bed is clean.”
She even has a small personal touch on her legal robes to represent her love of animals - with the buttons including tiny pictures of horse’s heads.
Goddard says her years in criminal law have taught her a simple lesson about human nature.
“That none of us are perfect. We all have different abilities for recognising opportunities and learning from our mistakes and that I’m no better than anybody else. I have been luckier than some, not as lucky as others but none of us are perfect. That is the thing I try and pass on to youngsters in chambers - we are no better than anyone else, we might be luckier but we are not better.”
Center Parcs celebration of professional accolade
Kath Goddard celebrated becoming a QC “with a blue Slush Puppy and a round of crazy golf” after finding out she had been accepted while at Center Parcs with friends.
“It was amazing. Everybody knew I was going to find out that day and I was checking my phone for the email every five to 10 minutes.”
She says she is looking forward to proving herself as a QC, which will involve working on the most serious criminal cases. “I’m starting again but it is a fantastic challenge. I just can’t wait to get stuck into the work, which is the reason I applied. I wanted the opportunity to continue making the difference I think I have done. I’m sorry my parents aren’t around to see it as they have both died now. Being from Sheffield, it would have meant so much to them.”