What was it like for you studying law at university?
I started university in 1968, and I was very significantly in the minority as a woman. ‘The professions’ – being a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that – were seen as the domain of men. I was lucky in that I came from a very progressive family for really wanted me to go into law. I don’t recall my male classmates being favoured, but it may well have been the case and I just wasn’t aware of it.
What prompted you to open own practice?
I qualified in about 1975 and it wasn’t until 1983 that I opened my own practice. Before that I worked both in private practice and for what would later become the Crown Prosecution Service. At that time, the few female lawyers there were tended to find themselves shoehorned into family law, as dealing with children and divorce was seemed as ‘women’s work’. I really resisted going into it because I didn’t want the decision to be made for me based on my gender. I feel like, then, family law was something of a blunt instrument, but it was rapidly evolving. I know that there are still changes happening today, though I’m less aware of the minutia now I’m retired. The Family Law Reform Act of 1969 and the addition of grounds for divorce were something I got to witness and I eventually made the decision of my own volition to work in that sector. I was the only female lawyer in the firm I was working for and I was getting sick of being pushed out of the way by men – I wanted to stand on my own two feet, for my own sake, and to prove that women could do it.
Was gender something that influenced the way you worked?
I only employed women, that was really important to me. I toyed with the idea of hiring a male secretary, if I could find one, but eventually I decided that I wanted to give employment to women where I could. I hired another solicitor, what you’d probably now call a paralegal, and a secretary. The woman who was my first secretary had never done any office work before I took her on, and afterwards became a support worker for Women’s Aid. That aspect was really important for me, giving women a better lot in life. I was the chair of the board for a woman’s refuge in the 80s, which is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
How have things changed since you started out?
The biggest and one of the most important differences is the fact that children now have a voice of their own. Before the mid-80s parents would speak for their children, which was totally farcical if we were trying to determine if something like abuse was going on. Giving children their own legal representatives was vital for their wellbeing. In family law in general, I think we have one of the most level playing fields, gender wise, in the whole legal system. By shoving women into this area it’s meant that we’ve been more in control of shaping it. We’ve taken what they gave us and made it a powerhouse. I’ve heard people complain that family courts are biased in favour of women, mothers usually, but that’s not the case. It’s just that the other areas of the legal system are more stacked against women, so the one area where that’s not the case seems unfair to those accustomed to gender-based privilege.