My legal life: Helena Kennedy QC

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I had from the beginning an idealistic idea that I could be the kind of lawyer who might change things for ordinary people. I thought law could be used as a protection and as a tool for social change.

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I set up a legal advice centre with a social worker friend at Waterloo and worked with a battered women’s shelter and attended meetings about prisons. I tell young lawyers to get out there and find out how people live. When I took on an appeal for the Guildford 4, I knew something had gone badly wrong but we were up against the might of the state.

In the old days, the judges could not understand domestic violence – why would a woman stay? they asked. It was so important to bring expertise into those cases and, in rape cases, vital to confront double standards and myths. I’ve found that it really is important to demystify law for the general public and talk about law in ordinary language without being patronising. I think the system has come a long way in connecting more successfully with the public.

There are constantly new challenges as technology advances and as our society becomes more diverse. We have to ensure that the system responds well to change without surrendering to every passing trend. I do multihanded trials so collegiality is very important. I work consistently for a handful of solicitors I have worked with for years and that makes for good team collaboration. 

I think people find me very down to earth and are not overwhelmed by my status as a lawyer once they meet me. It is judges I frighten, not clients. The hardest sort of client is the one I know for sure is innocent. Defending the guilty is easy. I had no sympathy with the big fees business but I am heartbroken that legal aid is being destroyed. It meant ordinary people got good legal advice from great lawyers.

The profession’s big gain has been diversity – more women, more black lawyers, more lawyers from working class backgrounds. The arrival of the Human Rights Act is creating a different legal culture. I have hope in the kind of young people coming into the law. I talk at conferences and meetings and head an Oxford College – Mansfield. People coming into the law share my passion for wanting to use law to change the world. But it is tougher than ever to get started.

  • Helena Kennedy will be an ‘adjudicator’ at Editorial Intelligence’s ‘Names Not Numbers’ event in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on 17-19 March. For more details go to the website.

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