Two women’s events took place last week that I was lucky enough to be involved in. One was the beginning of the 40th anniversary year of celebration of Rights of Women, the second was an International Women’s Day celebration at Garden Court Chambers.
Rights of Women was one of the first legal organisations I was involved in when I started practising at the Bar in 1980. There was an advice line service and every couple of weeks the advice givers (usually baby barristers or trainee solicitors) would climb up the narrow winding stairs to the small ROW office in an old house in Grays Inn Road (the old Time Out building) and then we would answer questions on housing, employment, family law, lesbian custody, domestic violence, immigration. The need was obvious. The phones rang constantly. I became more involved in the organisation. There were training workshops for new lawyers, sub-groups doing research into areas of law where there were few or no formal statistics. Family, housing, employment issues troubled many women. Immigration issues were also coming to the fore.
The 80s was a time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Clause 28 was creeping into the statute books and lesbians were seen as more dangerous than drunken, neglectful fathers. The emphasis was on so-called Family Values. I joined the Lesbian Custody Support Group. The workers wrote papers, produced research, including the tragic case law, and produced a legal handbook, Valued Families. The other sub-groups were doing the same. When the Children Act 1989 came into force, with its test of ‘the best interests of the child’ an excellent piece of research was produced ‘Contact between children and their violent fathers: in whose best interests?’ which was used to educate and inform the judiciary about the effects of domestic violence on children. I joined ROW’s policy group, and in the 90s for a few years I was chair of the organisation. We organised conferences, seminars, training and parties. The advice lines continued to run. It was all vital work, not least because it provided support and assistance to us, the lawyers who were out there in the field.
So last Thursday, I spoke about ROW past. Hilary Fisher from Women’s Aid which works very closely with ROW talked about the current work, including on the new offence of coercive control. And looking to the future was Sophia Raja, a trainee solicitor, who has worked with Southall Black Sisters, on the challenges ahead, particularly in light of the cuts to Legal Aid, which is having a severe and deleterious effect on women’s access to justice. See the Value of Legal Aid – case studies. It was a good event. It is so easy to become despondent – we thought we had won the battles but it’s clear now that we need to keep fighting – and it was uplifting to see so many young women in the audience, aware of the issues and keen to take up the struggle.