‘Why, oh why, am I a barrister?’

By Barbara Hewson on

In this week’s ‘If I knew then what I know now’, human rights barrister Barbara Hewson — who earlier this year caused uproar with a highly controversial piece on Operation Yewtree for Spiked Magazine — reflects on a career in which she has tried “to fight the good fight”.

I blame Patrick Hastings KC, 1880-1952. He influenced me when I was an impressionable girl. Not in person, obviously, but by his legal memoir, “Cases in Court” (1949), which fell into my precocious 11 year-old hands one day.

It sounded grand (in the Irish sense of that word), one drama after another. Hastings abandoned crime early on, finding it melancholy. Instead, he enjoyed a flourishing civil career, initially defending bus company insurers against fraudulent PI claims alleging PTSD — in those days it was called “traumatic neurasthenia” — and then progressing to such sensational cases as the Youssupoff libel suit. Princess Youssupoff sued MGM for a film about the Russian Revolution, which suggested that Rasputin had raped her. The case established that it was libelous to say of a woman that she had been raped, when she hadn’t.

Of course, there was the small hurdle of actually learning some law to overcome. I resisted the nuns’ plea to apply for a Holy Child scholarship at St Anne’s, Oxford, and instead went to a mixed college, Trinity Hall in Cambridge, to read English and law. At the end of my second year of Eng. Lit., I informed a sorrowing Mr Collier that I did not want to study law, just yet. Gritting his teeth, he revealed the existence of a wicked place called the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL), where law could be done like speed dating.

PCL was full of old lefties. I enjoyed trusts and land, so a life at the chancery Bar beckoned.

It also dawned on this aspirant woman barrister that you absolutely had to avoid a fate worse than death, called family law. Ambitious women of my generation targeted commercial, admiralty, IP, tax and chancery sets, to avoid biological determinism, as practised by barristers’ clerks.

The problem I discovered, once I had got my chancery tenancy in 1987 as per The Plan, is that law is really rather dull in practice. I used to draft accumulation and maintenance trusts. Women barristers were making their mark in Lincoln’s Inn, however, and there was a tacit competition as to who could wear the shortest skirt going over to court. I shan’t tell you who won that one (it wasn’t me). In our more serious moments, we helped set up the Association of Women Barristers (AWB). We lobbied the Bar Council, and got it to set up a Sex Discrimination Committee.

In quest of excitement, I ran away to Gray’s Inn in 1991 to practise a nasty foreign thing called European law. “But Miss Hewson, we don’t do that here,” my clerk in Lincoln’s Inn protested. So, a new life dawned. I became immersed in Bar politics, as an elected member of the Bar Council, and got some media exposure as the AWB press officer.

Imagine my outrage when the wretched Family Division started “ordering”, in ex parte hearings, competent pregnant women to undergo Caesarean sections. These hearings were initiated by NHS hospitals, seeking to override pregnant women’s refusal of treatment on the labour ward. The judges in question did not, apparently, see anything remotely amiss in holding a secret court hearing, which the woman herself knew nothing about and could not attend, and making a final order, constraining her liberty and invading her person, in her absence. Anyone with experience, as I had, of Mareva and Anton Piller orders knew that this was anathema. It was a total disregard of due process and the rule of law. Those cases made me furious.

Who helped my crusade against this horrible practice in the 1990s? Step forward my new head of chambers, the incomparable Mark Littman QC (called 1947). Mark had returned to the Bar, after a career in industry, following a formidable commercial career in the 1960s. He was the most independent-minded person I have ever met, apart from a silk whom I worked with in Dublin. His chambers were less of a set, and more of a salon.

When not opposing the war in Kosovo as illegal under international law, Mark would make barbed remarks like: “Being a barrister is a ‘lifestyle thing'”; “Barristers are really not very nice people”, and “Nothing pleases a barrister more than an undeserved victory”. But he was a brilliant lawyer, and said the Court of Appeal would go wild over what the family judges were getting up to.

Plus ça change!

So the wheel turns, decades fly by: I see I am fast becoming an old codger. What can I say? Legal aid, as I knew it, is a thing of the past; I am now sometimes instructed by paralegals; the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart. I say: NOTHING EVER CHANGES. LIFE IS ALWAYS UNPREDICTABLE. Look at ‘Garrow’s Law’. The media hover salaciously over victims’ “ordeals”, barristers grandstand, judges doze, and defendants go down horribly. Someone has to fight the good fight. Could it be you?

Barbara Hewson is a barrister specialising in public law, human rights and civil liberties, and regulatory law.