Leading pioneer of woman's rights at the Bar, Barbara Calvert talks about career and family to Chris Fogarty
Last year in the Kendal County Court in Cumbria, two elderly lawyers stepped into the courtroom to represent a mother fighting a claim over unpaid school fees.
Lead counsel was a compact, complete barrister, relishing the adrenaline of advocacy once again flowing through her veins nearly 12 years after she kicked the habit. Her clerk was a distinguished, smiling and slightly stooped gentleman, not unfamiliar to the environment of the court.
It is doubtful that the district court judge recognised the counsel in question as Barbara Calvert QC one of the most distinguished female lawyers to grace the Inns of Court. He certainly did not spot that her clerk and husband was Lord Lowry, former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
Calvert QC, who stepped back into the legal bullring to help a cousin unable to afford high legal fees, was back in her natural element and once again produced the type of slightly offbeat approach that has characterised her career.
“We lost the case, but that wasn't our fault,” says Calvert, laughing at the memory of it all. “It was great fun, I hadn't lost the adrenaline.”
Now 71, Calvert pioneered a unapologetic trail at the Bar in a career that was pinnacled by her being the first woman to found and head a set of chambers in 1974, at 4 Brick Court.
She was also the first female QC to be called to the senior Bar of Northern Ireland, the first woman to be elected a Middle Temple bencher and the first female QC to be appointed as a full-time chair of Industrial Tribunals.
A glittering career but by no means a conventional one, from an unconventional character.
This is a woman who cyc led to court most days and once even cycled to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. She received death threats when investigating human rights abuses in Malaysia in the mid-1980s and, aged 69, chased a thief who snatched her handbag.
Devoid of any pretensions, colleagues say Calvert always treated her clients like royalty, in a profession that has been occasionally accused of dealing with them like peasants.
Perhaps more importantly, throughout her career Calvert subtly changed the very structure and make-up of the Bar with her constant, and then unfashionable, championing of young barristers.
Sitting in her Victoria apartment and just back from the West Indies, where she and Lord Lowry followed the misfortunes of the English cricket team, Calvert talks with typical directness.
“I never meant to marry in the first place, I always meant to be a career girl,” she says.
From an early age her father taught her that she could do anything she wanted.
“If I had said I wanted to be a bricklayer he would never have said: “You can't be a bricklayer because you are a woman.' That makes a great difference you know.”
She worked at John Lewis department stores before marrying John Calvert in 1948, the couple going on to have two children.
Calvert, who says she is a great one for contracts, made her husband promise she could resume her career once the children got older.
Although she had never considered being a lawyer, in the early hours of a New Year's party in the late 1950s a friend of her husband urged her to go to the Bar. The idea stuck.
She was called to the Bar in 1959 and, aged 35, took pupillage in 1961. For many years she worked at Cloisters, then headed by the legendary left-wing silk John Platts-Mills.
“He's just a super person,” says Calvert. She is more guarded about expressing direct criticism of former colleagues.
One of the first tenants she shared a room with was Audrey Sander, now a circuit judge and one of the first barristers to go with Calvert when she set up her own chambers.
“There was a great shortage, as there is now, for seats for people,” explains Calvert of her decision to set up 4 Brick Court.
“And there was a theory in those days that you should have a silk as head of chambers and then go down in terms of experience.
“I think I got a bit cross. There were a lot of chambers of two or three silks. Why don't they split and start again? I just thought “why can't I start off with all youngsters'.”
In fact Calvert never took on any tenant younger than 25, but the set was often swarming with unpaid pupils, who usually stayed until they found a tenancy at the Bar.
“One had ups and downs, but it's all worked. Tony Shaw [QC] is now head of my old chambers and there are now 46 of them. When I left there were 23. It was the most exciting thing I ever did it really was,” says Calvert.
But as the first woman to set up chambers, there was resistance to using the set from solicitors and even their clients, as well as an undercurrent of resentment at the Bar.
“I think there was the desire on the part of some people, particularly the clerks, not to see you succeed,” she says.
Yet Calvert claims to have never suffered any serious harassment or prejudice during her career as counsel though she believes coming to the Bar in her thirties helped.
After setting up her chambers she continued to help young barristers to set up their own chambers and, in 1978 convinced the Inns to allow six young men and women to set up what is now 1 Pump Court.
“I went to the Bar Council and said: “Look, why don't you let them have a go. What have they got to lose except money?'” says Calvert.
“It was unheard of for six people of two or three years call to set up and it worked.”
One of those six was Jane Hoyal, still a barrister at 1 Pump Court.
Hoyal praises Calvert's “generosity of spirit” towards young counsel and describes her as a “tireless champion of the rights of women in the family and at their workplaces”.
Calvert herself is distinctly unsentimental about the pros and cons of being a working mother. “I don't like housework, I don't like little babies very much.”
Yet Calvert, who went to the Bar when only three per cent of barristers were women, feels sympathy for today's young female lawyers who feel guilty that their career may be at the expense of their children.
“I can't say I really enjoyed taking them [her two children] for walks in the park every day, looking at the ducks, but I'm very glad I did it now because I do think you miss out,” says Calvert, who adds it was easier for her because her children were older when she went to the Bar.
“Yes I do think you feel guilty. But I was graced with great energy and good health and that is a vital thing in any career.”
Although often working long hours for six days a week, Calvert also felt it was essential to find time to attend her husband's own work functions a view that may be seen as somewhat unfashionable today.
Her husband John died in 1987 and Calvert married Lord Lowry four years ago.
She left the set she established in 1986 to become chair of Industrial Tribunals, but remains heavily involved with various Inns committees, as well as several charities.
Perhaps the only real concession Calvert has given to slowing-down her pace of life is by cutting back on her cycling. “I don't think old ladies of 70 plus should be wobbling around Trafalgar Square on a bicycle,” she laughs.
Yet her eyes still sparkle mischievously and she moves with the grace and ease of a 20-year-old, despite a recent hip replacement.
Age has also failed to compromise her often controversial views of the Bar, with Calvert labelling it as terrified of change and “absurd” in its objection to extending rights of audience.
She points out that both the employment and planning Bar have grown, despite the growth in industrial tribunals, where not only solicitors, but also the public, have rights of audience.
Indeed, Calvert sees the tribunal judges as the last bastion between the average person and bureaucracy, a barrier to stop “civil servants ruling the land”, but is worried about a lack of wider public access to the courts. She doubts whether any solicitor will take a case for under £10,000 in a contingency agreement and suggests that it is not only senior barristers whose fees are too high solicitors are overcharging too.
Calvert cites the example of her hip replacement, for which the surgeon charged her £750.
“That's life enhancing, I'm not sure if going to court is ever life enhancing.”
So is this unconventional QC, who has challenged the way the Bar operates and scoffed at much of what it holds sacred, a radical? “I don't know,” replies Calvert, “I suppose I would really describe myself as someone who has never worried too much of what people think of me.”
Yet Hoyal maintains that the many young barristers who have been helped by Barbara Calvert QC think the world of her.