Champion of the equality cause

Barbara Hewson

Barbara Hewson is in conciliatory mood: progress is being made, male colleagues are supportive and the Bar is not such a bad place for women after all.

Her reassurances are at odds with the vociferous attacks which have identified her in the public eye as a champion of women's rights in a chauvinistic, discriminatory profession.

The revolutionary now seems reluctant. "Sometimes there are things which need to be said," she says, choosing her words carefully. "This is what barristers are all about – advocacy, persuading on issues for clients. Sometimes you have to take on a case which doesn't fit in with your personal view."

That does not mean her personal views condone the sexual harassment of a young female barrister by a senior male colleague – far from it. It is her well-documented opposition to such behaviour which has cast her into the public spotlight.

First, news leaked out of an unpublished Bar Council report which contained evidence of discrimination and harassment experienced by female trainees.

Next, Hewson, in her role as newly-appointed chair of the Association of Women Barristers (AWB), stoked the controversy. In a magazine article, she described sexual harassment as "unacceptably prevalent in our profession", detailed anecdotal evidence and listed ways in which a woman could be forced out of a chambers for complaining.

Hewson's previous targets have included the gender bias of judges, the Bar's "discriminatory" informal selection for pupillages and "secret soundings" for judicial appointments.

It comes as some surprise to hear Hewson, reflecting on a week of intense publicity for women's issues and the Bar, deliver generous praise for equal opportunities in the legal profession. "I think when you look at other professions – medicine and so on – we can hold our own." She says much is being done to promote the status of women at the Bar.

Even this month's bad publicity has advantages. "I think it has given the Bar the opportunity to say how well it is doing," she says, stressing how lawyers bothered to investigate the issue in the first place.

Hewson appears to be every bit the modern career woman. She combines her legal and political career with a private life and family background she pointedly refuses to discuss.

Her career, she estimates, is in its 22nd year. Descended from lawyers on her mother's side and doctors on her father's, she was destined to follow in one or other direction.

Hewson opted for law aged 11 after reading the memoirs of a 1920s barrister who defended a Russian princess suing for libel over an allegation she was raped by Rasputin. "She won the case because the court held it is defamatory to say a woman has been raped when she

hasn't. It was an extraordinary case. He described his practice from the start, and it sounded a wonderful way of life."

After a three-year diversion reading English at Cambridge, she revived her legal ambitions with a conversion course, coming to the Bar in 1985.

Starting in chancery at Lincoln's Inn, she moved to her current chambers, 4 Raymond Buildings, in 1991 where her commercial law and litigation experience developed into an interest in EC law and discrimination. She has carefully balanced both strands of her career, representing clients in reported cases one minute, standing for Bar Council elections the next, and now appearing as a media commentator.

Bar politics evolved from discrimination work. "I was never a political person at school," she says, "It was just something that developed."

Hewson became involved in the AWB at its outset. Taking over the helm four years on, she is keen to ensure it is not misunderstood. "We are not some lunatic fringe group. We only express opinions after research. We are not out of line with establishment thinking on many issues. A lot of women say that what they like is just an opportunity to meet other women at the Bar."

She sees networking as a key AWB function, and her plans for its future include strengthening links between women (and men) barristers, especially in Ireland and Scotland. "I am really following in the footsteps of a magnificent chair in Susan Ward, who has done a tremendous amount to raise the profile of the association."

The AWB membership now numbers 500, and with many prominent men among its supporters, she believes her job is merely a continuation of good work started in the past.

Cyril Dixon