Lynne Townley on the first 100 years in law for women
July 8, 2019
Could you tell us about your legal background?
I completed a traditional pupillage which I finished in 1997. I was fortunate to receive major scholarships from Middle Temple for bar school and pupillage. That Inn has always made me feel very welcome and it continues to play a supportive role in my life even today. I decided early on that self-employed practice was too precarious financially so I decided to do salaried legal work. I worked at a Law Reporter in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal for four years. Those were fun times in the RCJ before everything became widely digitalised.
Before Bar School I completed my masters degree and became involved in mooting. One of my professors and I wrote the Blackstone Book of Moots (now published by Oxford University Press). In 1999 we established what was to become the Oxford University Press National Mooting Competition along with the late great Alistair MacQueen (who commissioned Blackstone’s Criminal Practice as an alternative criminal text for practitioners).
From 2003 until 2015 I worked at the CPS. I held managerial posts and was a national policy advisor leading on areas of law including homicide, forensics, and honour crime. I was also Crown Advocate undertaking prosecutions in the Crown Court.
In 2004 I was co-author of a book on forensics in criminal cases published by The Law Society. In 2009 I became involved in campaigning against honour crime and forced marriage as a result of my policy-lead on those issues at the CPS.
Further at the CPS I was the Borough Crown Prosecutor for the London Borough of Redbridge and Chair of the Crime Reduction Partnership (where I developed a specialism in youth justice). I also set-up a CPS local advocacy unit based in Woolwich Crown Court (and became a specialist rape and serious sexual offences prosecutor).
I then worked in the City as a Financial Ombudsman. At the end of 2016, I joined City Law School, University of London lecturing on BPTC course. I also started researching towards my PhD on honour killings and acting as the academic supervisor for students volunteering at the Centre for Criminal Appeals (now Appeal). I am currently half-way through my term as the Chair of the Association of Women Barristers, having been elected to that position in May 2018.
What is it like to be a woman in the criminal bar and what is it like to be an Irish woman in the English criminal bar?
When I was considering a career at the Bar, I was told by an established-practitioner from the same area of Ireland as me, that I would to change my accent!
During the time when I was a first-six pupil, pupillages were mostly unfunded by chambers, so it was a struggle for a lot of people. There was not the same recognition as there is today about financial hardship in early practice.
In the last 20 years, the Bar has accepted and embraced diversity. However, because it has become so much more competitive for new practitioners starting out (there are not as many pupillages on offer and there are increased financial pressures due to university fees plus much higher fees on the Bar course), I think those coming from non-traditional backgrounds, in particular, still face an uphill struggle. BAME communities are still vastly under-represented - even at entry level - and there is a problem retaining women in the profession leading to an under-representation of women at the senior levels of the bar and in the senior judiciary.
What are your views on the first 100 years of women at the Bar?
I read Helena Kennedy’s ‘Eve Was Framed’ (about her early experiences at the Bar) whilst at university. There are still things that she has said in there that ring true today. So whilst there has been progress , it is still very difficult for BAME women to enter the profession, for example. I think that more can be done to assist women and BAME candidates to have a start at the Bar, to be able to stay there, or to take up a judicial position. For example, if people (disproportionately women) have taken time out to care for children or elderly relatives, this will inevitably affect their earning capacity and the Bar is only starting to look at how this issue can be tackled. I feel very protective of women who have difficult decisions to make about raising children. I have chosen not to have children myself, but I campaign for the rights of those who do.
As the Chair of the AWB what do you do to change the current situation at the Bar?
I work to make the organisation more inclusive for everyone to join. I also want to encourage men to be allies and for them to be actively aware of the difficult issues affecting women and other under-represented groups at the Bar. The first thing that I did as Chair was to link-up with the Society of Asian lawyers to look at the under-representation of women in silk. At that time (2018) there were only 28 BAME women in silk.
What is your advice for aspiring barristers who seemingly do not tick the ‘traditional barrister’ boxes?
Knowledge is power so do your research - about the nature of the Bar and its pitfalls - early.
Choose your allies wisely. The Bar is a friendly place and there is comradery when it comes to shared struggles. You can also make great friends for life. I am lucky to have done so and I wouldn’t change my experiences, even the more tricky ones, for the world!
Get as much legal experience as you can. Do whatever pro bono work you can. As your career progresses, continue to undertake pro bono work and be kind to others in whatever way that you can. Even though the Bar can be a struggle, we are still in a highly privileged position compared to many people in society who are disempowered and voiceless. We have a voice - we just need to find the courage to use it to challenge the injustices and improper practices that exist in our world today.