We spoke to Baroness Helena Kennedy QC about Brexit

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By Katie King on

She chairs the House of Lords’ EU Justice committee, and she thinks we’re living through “an ugly period”


Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is one of the most inspirational, experienced lawyers in the profession today.

Having started out as a criminal lawyer, she is now a leading human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and a member of the House of Lords. She has more than thirty honorary doctorates to her name, has acted in some of the most prominent cases of a generation (the Guildford Four appeal, for example) and is widely regarded as a trailblazer for women in the profession.

Now she chairs the EU Justice Sub-Committee, which scrutinises the law coming out of Europe and, more recently, reviews how lives might be impacted by Brexit.

With such a rich tapestry of experience, Kennedy seemed the perfect person to go to for some perspective about Brexit and its potential impact on the legal profession.

For commercial lawyers, and those wanting to be commercial lawyers, there’s not an awful lot to worry about. Though law firms tend not to expand in periods of uncertainty, there will be great opportunities in the corporate world thrown up by businesses’ need for advice. But, she continues:

I’m a human rights lawyer, and we’re about to see the Court of Justice (ECJ) be sidelined. Yes, our senior courts will still look at ECJ judgments, but no more so than, for example, Australian judgments. The big concern is rights, like paternity/maternity rights and employment rights, will be diluted in the long-term.

The committee hopes to alleviate this concern by examining carefully which EU laws should be protected. But it can be difficult to get the message across that a lot of good law does come out of Europe, especially when you have the pro-Brexit media to contend with. The Gray’s Inn bencher continues:

One thing that’s a complete myth peddled by the media is that a flood of law comes from the EU and is in some way done to us. The fact is that Britain is very good at law, and we play a very active role in the law that comes out of Europe.

Press coverage pre and post the 23 June referendum has shaped the Brexit rhetoric, and law of terrorism specialist Kennedy doesn’t think this has been for the best.


“We’re living in an ugly period”, Kennedy tells us, before slamming the Daily Mail and that headline about the High Court judges that ruled in favour of Gina Miller and her Article 50 claim (pictured above). On this, she says:

We’ve seen attacks on our judiciary for doing their jobs, accused of bias because one of them once sat on a European committee — that doesn’t mean he can’t make an unbiased decision.

She continues:

For those of us who care about the rule of law, it was really shocking to see right-wing press round on judges like this. Attacks on the independence of the profession are terrible. Forget what it’s going to do to us as professionals; it’s terrible for ordinary citizens.

But the shocking headlines don’t begin and end with Brexit. “People who are very hawkish in their dislike of the EU tend to also not like the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)”, she says.

Having been at the forefront of the Convention’s implementation into domestic law, it’s unsurprising Kennedy thinks it’s “regrettable” Theresa May and co are considering withdrawal. After reminding us that it was UK lawyers, and Conservative lawyers at that, who drafted the ECHR, she tells us:

I think people have begun to recognise that majoritarianism can be pretty detrimental to the lives of the minority. Even though withdrawal from the ECHR has been put on the backburner for now, I’m still worried about it.

This isn’t the only thing Kennedy is worried about. The virtual abolition of legal aid in certain areas, the “growing horror” of secret courts, remnants of old-style gender discrimination lurking behind firms’ and chambers’ doors, the inadequacy of rape laws: the profession has an awful lot to contend with nowadays.

Against this backdrop of discontent, an aspiring lawyer would be forgiven for jacking it in and pursuing a career elsewhere. But that’s not what Kennedy wants to put across. Her message is this:

We need people with good hearts and high standards of ethics to come into the law because we are going to need people to champion cases, to hold big corporates and the government to account.

Interested? Here’s Kennedy’s advice: be bloody minded. Have interesting experiences you can call upon at interviews, and not just a work placement at a fancy law firm that your uncle got you. Those driven by money alone need not apply.

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