In the Public Eye

Cherie Booth QC talks to Jason M. Hadden

As a young girl in Liverpool, Cherie Booth once watched a television series based around the life of Rose Heilbron QC. It was said of Dame Rose Heilbron, who died last year, that almost everything in her notable career had been a first. She had been the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, the first woman to take Silk, the first to lead in a murder case, the first woman recorder, the first woman to sit at the Old Bailey and the first woman treasurer of Gray’s Inn.

Dame Rose Heilbron was also, of course, extremely popular in Liverpool, where she had grown up, gone to University and then worked as a barrister, becoming one of the outstanding defence barristers of the post-war period and a Liverpool celebrity. So it was perhaps natural that the young Cherie should have regarded Dame Rose with particular admiration and sought to emulate her achievements.

Cherie Booth, of course, was of a later generation. The daughter of actor Tony Booth, she was Called in 1976, took Silk in 1995 and became a Recorder in 1999. She is a Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn.

She made one tilt at the windmills of the politics - unsuccessfully contesting the seat of North Thanet in Kent at the 1983 general election – before returning to practice as a barrister. Despite this, Cherie Booth is probably more widely recognised than any active British politician, except her husband.

She is also, ironically, one of the least understood people in the public eye.

Her marriage to Tony Blair has placed her in the uncomfortable position of being the object of searching scrutiny by the media, the public and politicians, on everything from fashion sense to foreign affairs. Yet she is rarely able to express a personal point of view. She once made the wistful observation to the effect that she started as somebody’s daughter, turned into somebody’s wife, and would probably end up as somebody’s mother. She would like to ‘speak for England’. And as a highly regarded Advocate and prominent human rights lawyer, who better able to fulfil that responsibility than her? Alas. All too often this advocate of human rights and fundamental freedoms is usually denied our common law liberty of freedom of speech – and we are no doubt the poorer for that.

It is thirty years since she started out in practice – so, I want to know, has the law changed at all since that time?

 “Oh yes. It has changed a lot.  When I was a young barrister, I was in a general common law set.  I did crime. I did divorce. They had just stopped doing the undefended divorces, but I certainly did undefended nullity petitions.  I did simple personal injury actions.  I did debt collecting in the Crown Court.  I had a wide range of small county court experience and I did my Employment Law Tribunals, which were just starting up at the time. Today, young tenants in these Chambers [Matrix] do not get that wide range of experience.  They are much more likely to get their experience being juniors, junior juniors and in much bigger cases.  It took me until 1983 to get to the House of Lords.  Some of our young people may well be in the House of Lords as a junior junior in their second or third year of qualification.”

 So, I ask, does she think that is a good thing for the profession?

“I think specialisation is a good thing.  I think that we have to make sure that since the Bar is about specialist advocates, that the young people actually do get the proper experience of being an Advocate. We try and do that through Chambers by making sure that they do get those opportunities.  But in the end you can’t beat practice to be a good Advocate.”

Cherie Booth is not in court on an everyday basis any more. Her work in now in the Appeal Courts – though she says she likes to do “one big trial every year, because I do enjoy witness actions.” She goes on, “But what with my life at the moment, it is difficult to devote that amount of time – weeks and weeks – to a single case. Whereas Appellant Advocacy is a lot easier to do in short bursts of time.”  

But surely, I suggest, she must miss the cut and thrust?  

“Well, I think that if you argue a case in the House of Lords, I think you might find that it was full of cut and thrust. I am very happy with the mixture that I have at the moment, actually.  I get to argue very interesting cases in the highest courts in the land and some in international courts as well.  I think I am very, very lucky.”

As she has made mention of the international courts and tribunals, I want to know what matters to her, in terms of the law? Not just in Britain, but internationally.

“What matters to me, in the law? I think the rule of law is of vital importance in any country and the idea of an independent judiciary, incorruptible, and dedicated to protecting people’s human rights is of fundamental importance across the world. And sadly, not every country in the world has that.  And anything we can do to help inculcate that spirit of why the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the legal profession is important. I think it helps to make the world a better place.”

When she says, that not every country places this value on the rule of law, I want to know which countries she has in mind – and I receive a predictably guarded answer.

“Well”, she replies, “I think it is perfectly obvious that there are many such countries in the world. One only has to read reports where there are difficulties there with the independence of the judiciary and the difficulties where lawyers are under attack because they have stood out against the regime.  I would not want to single out any one in particular – it is a problem across the world, but not an insurmountable problem. It is one where there are a lot of efforts - both through the UN and through the Commonwealth - to do something about it.”

What does she think that lawyers in Britain can do about it?

“Well, I think we can do many things. One of the great things about being a barrister, when I was called in 1976 – and because I was top in the Bar Finals – was that I had to give the speech on behalf of the students.  I can remember being told by Lincoln’s Inn that I should acknowledge the foreign students there because they were due to go back to their countries to become the leading lawyers and judges in their country. And the fact is that this was true.  For a long, long time, throughout the Commonwealth, we trained the Chief Justices and the Judges across the world. And one of the sad things about the new proposals for deferring Call is that this is going to have an impact on whether people from abroad who want to come and study here in the various Inns of Court. Which I think is a shame.”

If education is still the most important factor in becoming a lawyer, I wonder, is ‘Tesco law’ a sort of dumbing-down?

She says it is not. The idea, she says, “is to enable the community to have access to lawyers in the way that they feel comfortable with and which is accessible to them.  I think there is a huge problem about access to justice.  And I think that people deserve to be able to have access to lawyers. And if that means that they get it through Law Centres, through Citizen’s Advice Bureaux - and indeed, if necessary, through something like Tesco law - then that is important.  What is important is that people get access to good quality justice.  And how you get access to good quality justice is by ensuring that lawyers are trained properly, that the principles of the profession are upheld by the professional bodies and by the general peer pressure that operates within our system.”

Cherie Booth once worked as a tutor for Students and Members of the Institute of Legal Executives. This was in 1976, when she was doing her pupillage. “I was a tutor for the Fellowship exams at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London. So I taught the Tort Paper at that time to part-time students. I know what goes into qualifying as a Legal Executive and the great work that they do. There is no doubt at all that the legal profession could not operate if it was not for the great work they do.”

It would appear to me, I suggest, that sometimes Legal Executives do not receive the recognition they deserve.

This is a pity, she thinks. The exams for Legal Executives were quite as tough as those for the other branches of the profession.  “I certainly know from teaching Legal Executives myself,” she says, “that the Legal Executive Tort course covers everything in the Solicitors’ Tort course, and maybe [everything] in the Barristers’ course as well. The one thing I remember about the paper was it had more questions - they had to answer more questions. I do not know if the exams are still the same for Legal Executives, but they had more questions which they had to answer.  Not in such great depth. But they had to have a wide range of knowledge.”

What does she think is her most significant case to date, I want to know.

“I think that is very difficult.  I think, like all lawyers I feel whatever the case I am working on at the moment is [the most important].” 

Has there been, I ask, a case where she had turned around and said, “That made a difference” or at any rate, “That made a difference to me?”

“I am not sure that any of my cases have made a difference to me personally. But clearly every win you make as a lawyer makes a difference. Actually, quite often you will find that many barristers say that it is the cases they lose that incline them to be more grateful for the ones they win.”

What about cases which have established a precedent?

“As for precedent cases, I am very lucky.  Because of the sort of work I do, there are many cases that I had which are in the Law Reports. That has made a difference to the Law, whether I have been on the winning side, or the losing side. In fact, some times I have been on both sides.  For example, with the Lisa Grant v. South-West Train case, when I argued in the European court that there should be equal pay for lesbian couples. I lost that case.  Several years later I did Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School, where I argued for the employer, that you could not treat sexual orientation discrimination as the same as sex discrimination. Which was the opposite of what I was arguing in Lisa Grant. I lost in Lisa Grant and I won in Pearce. Or take the case of X in Bedfordshire, and E in Dorset, when I was arguing for the local authorities in the House of Lords that they should not extend the law of negligence to cover local authorities’ responsibilities for educating children with special needs. I lost that in the House of Lords, and then I went on and won the first-ever case by a dyslexic pupil for compensation, the Phelps case.  That is the joy of being a barrister. You can argue both sides, in different cases – obviously not in the same case.”

Does she find it tough being a judge, I ask?

“I enjoy being a judge.  It is a different.  It is a different experience and one which I enjoy.”

Where did she see her future?

“Well, I think my future – as my past – is in the law.”

Has you struggled, as a lawyer and a mother?

“Let me at least say that I do not think I am at all unique, as a parent in the Law.  Most male barristers are parents, actually, but [they] are not often asked about their difficulties with work/life balance. This is a shame because they do have difficulties with work/life balance.  I think that, for all lawyers, the question of the long hours culture, and the macho idea of presentee-ism is a real problem.  But clearly, it is a problem that women experience more acutely than men.  But you only have to look at the list of Queen’s Counsels this year, and look at the women there, many, many of whom have children, so I am by no means unique in becoming a Queen’s Counsel.”

Well it certainly did appear to be tougher for women, I observedThere seems to be an obligation that they had to worker harder or for longer hours – and yet more women were coming into the profession now than ever before.

“Well, I think women lawyers, like women in every other walk of life, do find it harder.  There still is a male-dominated culture out there; I think it would be foolish to disagree. I think the problem is not actually in relation to male and female starting out.  I think the problem arises more when you have children, when the assumptions about the role of women, in relation to that, can mean that women struggle more than men to get their work/life balance right.  And as a barrister, of course, I have been lucky, because I am self-employed and therefore can to some extent choose my lifestyle myself. I think it is a bigger problem for women solicitors and partners in firms where they have their obligations to the firm to think about as well.”

Are things getting better? I ask.

“I think there is no doubt, whatsoever, that things have changed.  When I had my first baby in 1984, I took off four months.  I had to pay my full rent the whole time, my full Clerks’ fees and did not get any allowances for the fact that I was pregnant. The woman member of Chambers before me had become pregnant and had left Chambers and did not practise at the Bar any more. I was determined to go back and prove that you could both be a mother and a barrister. It was not until my third child that I got three months rent-free. So, you know, you just had to get on with it in those days. That is not the case now.  In fact, it is professional misconduct to penalise a woman for taking maternity leave now.  So that is a good thing.”

But there is still, I suggest, that work/life balance. I wonder whether there is more that we can do as a profession.

“I am sure that there is a lot more we can do as a profession.  I think we do need to look at our practices and whether they are just what we have always done, or whether there is some utility in some of them.  I think a lot of the ways we organise our life and a lot of the ways we define who is successful and who is not successful, are based on the outdated assumption that a lawyer is someone who has a wife at home, who looks after the family and the children. And the lawyer is dedicated totally to the office.  I mean that is not the case, I think, for most men, as well as it is not the case for most women. Indeed, I think if you want to be a rounded, better person and therefore a better lawyer, you need to have some work/life balance.”

A traditional, end-of-interview sort of question: how would she like to be remembered?

“Actually, I was not thinking of leaving at the moment,” she retorts, before continuing. “n the end, what matters is, I think, what the people who know you think of you.  And the most important thing is what your family and your friends think of you, and in the law, of course, your colleagues.”

But the funny thing is, I point out, that in your case everybody thinks that they know you.

“Now, that is absolutely true,” she agrees. “The strangest thing about being in the public eye is there are thousands of people have an opinion about me. None of whom have ever met me and that is just the way it is… In a sense, it is difficult to ignore it.  If you are in the public eye, you can’t ignore it, in one sense. So you have to know how to deal with it.  And the way that I deal with it is to say that you can not be answerable to people who don’t actually know you.  You have to be answerable to yourself, to your family and to your friends.”

It must be very difficult to live in the public eye, I suggest.

“Frankly, I do not have any choice.  I am not sure I have a choice. I do live in the public eye and therefore you have to find a way of dealing with it.”

Cherie is relaxed and put ease she is charismatic and is an utter delight: radiating energy, pride, enthusiasm and commitment. But she clearly finds it difficult to speak openly and freely on matters which are of concern to her. One of the questions I had planned to ask her had been this: Whether, in years to come, on looking back at her time as the wife of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, she would feel that she had made a difference. That is clearly a question that only she can answer. I hope, however, that her answer will be – Yes.

Jason M. Hadden with James Schofield