Helena Kennedy QC is a remarkable woman. She has been involved in almost every leading human rights case over the last thirty years and is seen by many as the saviour of the unfortunate, the lost and the politically forgotten. The nation’s Portia.
Yet rather than leave her on the outside looking in (or words to that effect) the political establishment made her “one of us” and laudably ennobled her. An incredible journey for a “wee lass” from the tenements in Glasgow to a seat of power in Westminster.
When I meet Ms Kennedy in the lobby in the House of Lords I am somewhat surprised as she is perhaps smaller than I had expected; immaculately presented; fierce and with an accent which sometimes flickered between her origins in Glasgow and years of living “down South”. She is now in her 57th year (a factor which far too many reporters link to her name in articles) “to a working class family; my father worked with newspapers as a printer on the Daily Record and was a trade-union official, my mother was a housewife. There were four daughters in the family and they all left school at fifteen. I was the lucky one. I went to a local school in Glasgow and at the last minute decided that I would do law at University”.
She was originally planning to read English at Glasgow University but a last minute change of heart found law the more natural calling. The reason:
“Debating! In Scotland debating is very much part of the culture. In schools we all debated, and this was in the big working-class schools. I can remember that when I was about eleven or twelve my teacher would explain the procedures about debating and, well they are very similar to the law. I remember him pointing at me and saying ‘we’ll have a debate and you, Helena, will argue in favour of the death penalty.’ And I said ‘oh no, I can’t do that, because I am not in favour of the death penalty,’ and he said ‘but that’s not what this is about. You have to be able to understand what the argument of the other person is, you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes, and that’s the whole point. And you will argue for the death penalty…’and so I did. It was about learning to make an argument; to make it as cogent as possible, and to understand the logic of it. As I said, very similar to the law”.
And to that end she chose to become a lawyer and travelled down to London and the Bar.
“I remember that I was surrounded by people who had gone to public school, who were very confident, who I thought were like the people on the radio, and had posh English accents. I was an outsider. I spoke with a South Border accent. I was rather conscious of it, in a way very Scottish. I was not welcomed, I did not feel that I belonged, and it took quite a long time to have that sense of entitlement to be there, while everyone else seemed to be very comfortable. But you can never tell. They can each have their own insecurities too.”
The treatment of women both in the legal profession and in society generally has always concerned Kennedy. In particular "the women who came in as clients. I started to represent prostitutes and people like that and that really sharpened up my sense of how the law did not work for whole groups of people."
In 1993 she published her first book, a look at the way British justice treated women, Eve Was Framed. She also became a fixture on television in standing up for the rights of the individual in programmes such as Blind Justice and Raw Deal. More and more of her career became dominated by the preservation of civil liberties and human rights.
“I think these are things that we can be boastful about, and the rule of law was invented in this country, with the idea that you have to hold to account the people in power, and it started off, of course, being the King, but then of course the government, Ministers, people who are employed by arms of the State, whether they are policemen, immigration officers, prison officers, and we are entitled to expect those who have power not to abuse it.”
But do you really believe that our civil liberties are at risk?
“I really believe that they are in danger; of trial by jury; of torture. In the seventeenth century our Judges decided that torture was unacceptable, and that evidence that might come from torture should not be accepted in court. These were things that were taken up by the rest of the world and being very important principles for any state to adhere to, and we are cavalier about how important they are. So, of course, as you probably know, I have had my battles with the Labour government about it and this is a very painful business, because I am someone who prefers to see Labour in government to anyone else, and yet at the same time my first loyalties, when it comes to these issues, has to be to the law.
It was in 1997 that the Labour government ennobled her as Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws for her work as a campaigner; a Labour Party supporter and her work in a large number of prominent cases. Amongst others these include the Brighton Bombing, the Michael Bettany espionage trial, the Guildford Four appeal and the bombing of the Israeli embassy. However in the last ten years she has moved from being one of Labour’s more high-profile supporters to one of their more high-profile critics.
"I think that when it comes to this business of law and legal principle, I think they [Labour] are getting it seriously wrong and nothing will persuade me otherwise. There were times when I have to stand up and say ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to vote with you. I’m going to vote against you.’ For people who don’t care in the same way about these issues, they find it very hard to understand, and they get very angry with me."
But as a Member of the Labour Party in the Lords, have you ever considered resigning the Labour whip?
“No, but on occasions, I have been advised to consider my position. But I am standing up and saying it is not good enough. Law matters! That is what I am saying. That is my slogan – the Law matters. Actually it is the mortar in a civilised society, and once you start losing respect for that, and cease to understand why it is important then I think you start making a rod for your back.”
So why do you think that this disregard for civil liberties has become so prevalent?
“I think it is partly about the nature of society where we have politicians who no longer have to work as hard about winning people to their argument. Everything can be done so much more readily, because of the nature of communication. You know, you do not have to have a political party to defend ideas and to argue over why things should be as they are, or why you might change things. You actually just sit on Richard and Judy’s sofa, and tell the nation why you think crime’s a bad thing, and what ought to be done.”
But crime is of course a “bad thing”.
“I agree that crime is a bad thing; that terrorism is a terrible thing, but what you do not need to do, is, in a knee-jerk way, reject the things that have been struggled for over many centuries. And there’s always a way which Government for once, even after modernising, become cavalier with things that are considered to be old. You know, the thinking, ‘they’ve been around for hundreds of years…’”
But the thing is of course that governments want to show, perhaps even think that they have to show the people that they are doing something?
“They want to be seen to be acting very quickly. They reach for legislation as an answer to problems, and often legislation is not necessary. We have had the creation of eight hundred new criminal offences and that is about a formula, which is that the Government feel that something has to be done. The tabloid press run campaigns on crime. We have to be seen to be tough on crime. We have to legislate, and what’s the best way to be seen to be doing that. It’s to be tough on these folk who, we think, may have done it. You know, it is very easy in the circumstances, to erode the fundamentals.”
So is it all doomed?
“Look society requires the rule of law, and it requires a vibrant democracy, and both are at the moment, actually, slightly kind of quaking in their boots. We need to revive democracy, and we need to be conscious of the principles which underpin the law. Because, I think you start unpicking the mortar…you start taking out from our foundations, the stuff that holds it all together. And I think, you know, that there are serious consequences from doing that.”
So what can we do as lawyers to protect this system?
“One of the great things about the legal system in Britain is that you actually have an independent legal profession and guarding that independence is very important. It is about making sure that without fear or favour you are prepared to defend people with the law. Challenging government, government officials and you can do this fearlessly and you are prepared to take on, as most of our firms do, suing government, suing the Ministry of Defence. We have to have a profession that is prepared to do those things, and from that profession we get such a terrific judiciary.”
But one of the problems that the profession has is that legal aid is being diminished and lawyers it would appear are becoming less respected.
“This is why we have to keep Legal Aid available, because you want your Criminal Justice Courts to be respected and seen to be fair. Once you start becoming, you know, making fast and loose with that, I think you end up praying a price. And it’s all short-termism. It’s all so daft. Because in the end, it’s about not seeing what the consequences might be, say, ten years from now. Because it all hangs together, and that makes for our reputation around the world.”
You mention reputation, in the world of miscarriages of justices cases which was the most important for you?
“People always think it must have been the Guildford Four Appeal, because it was such a high-profile case and it was such an important case in terms of being one of those lines in the sand cases. But I have done lots of other lesser miscarriages of justice, where I have seen real pain, and I have seen people suffer because they have lost, or almost ended up losing their liberty for life.”
That must have been incredible sad?
“Well some of the saddest cases, of course, are cases involving domestic killings, where people have killed family members and it has happened in some horrible argument, where somebody lost their life and I have done lots of big high-profile cases, but the cases often haunt you most are, you know, often not the ones that make the headlines.”
Are you haunted by many?
“Just a few years ago, I did a case involving a little girl from Bangladesh, who was fourteen, brought here by her family, and could not speak a word of English. She had lived with her grandmother, back in Bangladesh, and she came here and was made pregnant by one of her relatives – her mother’s brother – and did not tell anybody. She was so frightened and gave birth on her own, in a toilet, and threw herself from a multi-storey block of flats. The baby miraculously survived, but ended up in care. The whole story was just desperate. The little girl, the fourteen year old, ended up on trial at the Old Bailey. He was a wonderful judge, and gave her probation and actually gave her an absolute discharge. And I spoke about the responsibility of the relative who made her pregnant, and obviously sexually abused her, who had disappeared. But it was a terrible thing.”
Are we a safer society now there are fewer miscarriages?
“I think we are much more vigilant and much more conscious of miscarriages of justice. But I am concerned that, in relation to terrorism, it is always when there are highly charged cases, where emotions run high and we all do feel very strongly about terrorism, and rightly so, but it is important that we show that the justice system can deal with these challenges to our system, because that is what makes ours different from terrorists, that we do respect the rule of law. And I think juries are fantastic.”
It is perhaps not only juries who require such an accolade. Perhaps society is safe when there remain people such as Helena Kennedy who are prepared to fight for our liberties and our rights even when it sometimes puts her at odds with our own. But then again all rights require some sacrifices and Kennedy’s political affiliations may yet prove such for her.