Baroness Helena Kennedy QC on why the British justice system is failing women

Helena Kennedy is the new chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University
Helena Kennedy is the new chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University
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Baroness Helena Kennedy QC has acted in some of Britain’s most famous criminal cases but now believes our justice system is failing women. Richard Blackledge reports.

The trajectory of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC’s life is a case study of social mobility writ large. One of four sisters brought up in a two-room and kitchen tenement in a working-class area of Glasgow, she was the first in her family to study in higher education, became one of the country’s most distinguished barristers and now sits in the House of Lords with a peerage bestowed by Labour.

The Duchess of Cornwall (second right) with (from left to right) Ruby Wax, Kathy Lette and Baroness Helena Kennedy during a reception at Clarence House, central London in support of the Southbank Centre's WOW - Woman of the World festival in 2012.

The Duchess of Cornwall (second right) with (from left to right) Ruby Wax, Kathy Lette and Baroness Helena Kennedy during a reception at Clarence House, central London in support of the Southbank Centre's WOW - Woman of the World festival in 2012.

But this barely scratches the surface of her extraordinary CV. A determined champion of human rights and justice for women, she has chaired the British Council and the Human Genetics Commission; led inquiries into sudden infant death and safety at Aldermaston atomic weapons establishment; has written a string of books and is chair of the Booker Prize Foundation; presented the fondly-remembered Channel 4 discussion programme After Dark and was principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, for six years until earlier this summer.

Now she has taken the helm as Sheffield Hallam University’s new chancellor, succeeding Professor Lord Robert Winston whose tenure lasted nearly two decades. From the dreaming spires to the Steel City, then – quite a contrast, but the move reflects a wider theme.

“I’ve always been very interested in widening participation, and I have committed a lot of time to the business of giving opportunities for people to have higher education who might not have expected it to be in their families, or whatever,” she says. “Because that was my background. And higher education changed my life.”

Baroness Kennedy is Hallam’s first woman chancellor. It’s a welcome step forward, but discrimination remains rife, she says.

She argues that British justice is failing women, and has written a book on the subject called Eve Was Shamed which will be published this autumn. It follows a similar title, Eve Was Framed, which broke new ground in 1992. In its wake she received letters from victims whose ordeals had been hushed up by those who could have acted.

“We know that’s gone on. We know it from Rotherham, and all those scandals in cities where there was the grooming and abuse of girls, and the turning of a blind eye by the police and social services. It just amazes me, I’ve been writing about this stuff for over 30 years and it’s only in recent times that people have started saying ‘How did we manage to miss all this?’”

Victims – women, ethnic minorities, gay men – have also been reluctant to come forward out of shame, she says. “We attach taboos to certain things and it means people are silenced. We have to lift those veils of ignorance and make sure people can talk about what they experience. That way you bring it to an end.”

She is a firm supporter of the #MeToo movement, having dealt with plenty of harassment and sexism in her early legal career. As a barrister she has acted in many high-profile cases, including the trial in 1986 over the Brighton bombing on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet ministers and the successful Guildford Four appeal in 1989. She was also junior counsel for Moors murderer Myra Hindley at her 1974 trial for plotting to escape from Holloway Prison.

“It was a male profession,” she says. “I remember when I started men would ask, ‘Are you planning to get married? Are you engaged, do you have a fiancée?’ Because the idea was you were a bad bet – why would you take anyone on in chambers if they’re going to go off and have babies? They really didn’t feel it was a place for women.”

Then there was the ‘constant commenting on your femaleness, your clothes and how you looked’. “There were occasions where you had to run round tables with people trying to pinch your behind. In those days there was a sense we had to self-safeguard, because we knew complaining was going to crush any prospect you had. Young women are saying, ‘We’ve had enough of this’. And I think it’s great. I think we did put up with too much in the old days, and I get very disappointed when older women say ‘All you have to do is slap somebody’s hand, it was simple’. It wasn’t always simple. And it’s not simple when it’s about power.”

One of her reasons for accepting the Mansfield College role was, she says, to expand the intake – when she left, 92 per cent of its students were joining from state schools. And she already had strong ties with Hallam, where we meet before her installation ceremony; four years ago she opened the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at the former polytechnic, which gained university status in 1992. It says 96 per cent of young people attending full-time are from state schools and colleges, with 41 per cent coming from low income backgrounds.

She accepts the ideal of removing barriers to gaining a university degree is being assailed, chiefly by expensive fees which stand at £9,250 a year. “I think these are hard times financially for many families, and the whole business of fees is a tough one. The promise was, if you got a higher education it followed you would get a great job afterwards. There are jobs, and a lot of employment, but not always of the sort people want to see as fulfilling their lives. What I love about Sheffield Hallam is it’s really equipping people for the world of work, employment and practice. It’s so welcoming to people who would have felt higher education wasn’t for the likes of them.”

Her parents were, she says, perfectly intelligent people, but life didn’t ‘present them with those opportunities’. “So they left school at 14. My father was in the Army during the war and became a despatch hand on the newspapers – it wasn’t a skilled job, but he wanted his children to do better. My mother, too, had left school and worked in a grocery store. Is that promise going to be kept, of making it possible for people to have that better life?”

Twenty years ago the Helena Kennedy Foundation was established; the charity provides mentoring and gives scholarships worth thousands to disadvantaged students.

In the late 1960s she was set on studying for a BA in English, but was tempted by the law and trained instead at the Council of Legal Education in London. She says the privilege in the capital “was a shock to my system”.

“Very few people from working class backgrounds like me were going to study law and become a barrister,” reflects the 68-year-old mother-of-three. “It was a rarer thing. Most of the people I studied with had gone to very posh public schools. Mainly they were all single-sex, boys’ schools, so they weren’t used to having women who were their friends.”

“People say to me I’m part of the establishment – and I couldn’t possibly pretend that’s not true. But I’ve always felt I’ve been able to keep a foot out, because of the strong sense I have of pride in my background. Too many people have no idea how the majority live.”

Notorious clash with Oliver Reed

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC hosted a notorious episode of Channel 4 programme After Dark that remains seared in her memory almost 30 years on.

In 1991, with the Gulf War at its height, the actor Oliver Reed was among the guests in a debate on the topic ‘Do men have to be violent?’ – he got drunk on camera, made baffling and incomprehensible observations, lunged at the feminist author Kate Millett and was eventually told to leave. Baroness Kennedy can pinpoint why Reed, who died in 1999, became so agitated. “It turned out his father had been a conscientious objector, and he felt deep shame about it and had obviously been bullied at one of those posh schools. That’s why he felt so belligerent, I think, because he had a real chip on his shoulder.”