Top QC reveals how she overcame insane 1980s sexual harassment

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By Polly Botsford on

State school-educated family law barrister also slammed legal education costs in eye-opening speech

Jo Delahunty QC has given a very personal account of her journey to the top of the bar in a lecture delivered at Gresham College on equality and aimed at encouraging those already in the profession to help those trying to access it.

In the lecture, Delahunty, who was brought up by a single mum and educated in the state sector, talked openly about her choice of the bar — reasons which, in fact, both female and male aspiring barristers will recognise. She said:

I was, quite simply, unemployable. I wanted to control my work load, what I did, when I did it, how I did it. I did not want a 9-5 job and had never easily accepted instruction on what to do. … I thrived on competition, I was a deadline junkie, I was an independent worker, I wanted to make a difference to my world.

Despite this being a lecture on equality for women lawyers, Delahunty’s arguments focused as much on class and the financial barriers faced by barristers, male and female. The QC stated:

.. the central issue of concern that I see as a barrier to entering my profession [is] the cost and risk. … Students simply can’t afford to run the financial risk of entering a self-employed, financially precarious, profession when they have racked up so much university student debt.

The 4 Paper Buildings barrister was, however, incredibly frank about her experiences of sexual harassment and sexism. She explained:

Like many women entering my profession in the late 1980s, I suffered sexual harassment and didn’t make a formal complaint: booked into a double hotel room when working out of London with my pupil supervisor without my knowledge or consent (I didn’t enter), groping, propositions.

She lifted the lid on what happened in a client conference in chambers:

..when chair space was limited in one conference a client offered me his knee to me to sit on and the only reaction was laughter within the room, including from my pupil supervisor.

Though one might have expected these types of anecdotes of events in the 1980s, Delahunty’s experiences appear to indicate that times have not changed as much as one might have hoped. Here is her final anecdote from, incredibly, 2011 after she became a recorder:

Shortly after being made a Bencher, I entered The Princes Room in Middle Temple and, dressed as I was dressed in a white shirt and black skirt, was asked by a rather elderly gentlemen when he might expect his tea. I had been mistaken for a member of staff.

Delahunty, who alongside practising is professor of law at Gresham College, touched on a number of key themes in her lecture including admission rates, retention at the bar, career progression, judicial appointments before highlighting the need for mentoring which the QC sees as “a responsibility as well as a privilege.”

Read the speech in full

Jo Delahunty QC Gresham College speech

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