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Speech to International Women Judges

Washington DC March 2009

As a young lawyer nothing shocked me more than what I learnt about the scale and nature of domestic violence, how it crossed all social boundaries and the dreadful impact it had. Cherie Booth QC

I am honoured to be with you tonight - and to have the chance to share experiences with so many distinguished and accomplished legal colleagues.

As I look around this audience, I can’t help but think how far women have come within our profession within the last 30 years - and how much better justice is served by this progress.

It is astonishing to look back and think it is only three decades since one of the key legal textbooks I had to study tried to dissuade women becoming trial lawyers.

The 1973 - not 1903 - edition of “Learning the Law” by Glanville Williams QC warned of the difficulties of women succeeding at the bar.

“Practice at the Bar ” he opined “ is a demanding task for a man; it is even more difficult for a women…..It is not easy for a young man to get up and face the court; many women find it harder still… A women’s voice also, does not carry as well as a man’s.”

I am not sure what poor Glanville would have made of a gathering like this, let alone a conference addressed by Sandra Day O’Connor.

So I am thrilled to be with you - even if I do feel a bit of a fraud.

I have, so far at least, only made it to the level of part-time judge or recorder as they know in the UK.

It is, however, always something of a relief to be back among professional colleagues.

Over the last couple of years, I have found myself increasingly outside my comfort zone.

I am not sure when I started practising as an attorney I ever thought I would be cross-examined on the Jay Leno show.

Despite by my rather obvious fright, I have to report that the host is someone who has mastered the skill of letting his guests shine.

Although I think with some judges he may well have been interrupted for leading his witness.

All to say that it is nice to be on more familiar territory tonight and with friends - and I also feel privileged to be at a conference which is dealing with such an important issue and one close to my heart.

I have been passionate about stepping up efforts - as a profession and as societies - to combat violence against women since my first faltering weeks and months as a lawyer.

As I am sure all of you remember, those early days are very much a steep learning curve.

But nothing shocked me more than what I learnt about the scale and nature of domestic violence, how it crossed all social boundaries and the dreadful impact it had.

In those early days, I found myself regularly sent to represent clients trying to get injunctions against those who attacked them.

I heard first hand about the bullying behind closed doors, the routine beatings, women attacked even when heavily pregnant.

I remember tragically that one client of mine was eventually murdered by her partner.

I realized quickly how this violence can be in the form of emotional or psychological abuse as well as physical assault and that these threats and denigration may be as harmful as actual violence.

Domestic violence is about power and the breakdown and distortion of an intimate relationship.

It’s about the desire of one partner to dominate and control the other. It’s found across all age groups and social strata.

It is why one of my proudest associations is with the charity Refuge who pioneered the setting up of safe havens for the victims of such attacks - an idea which has been taken up around the world.

I am proud as well of the progress we have seen in forcing domestic violence out in the open in the UK and many other countries.

It was only in 1976 - the year I started practicing - that courts in the UK first started treating domestic violence as a separate offence rather than just simple assault.

I take real family pride, as well, that when the law was next over-hauled, modernised and strengthened -making the long-term security of the victim the priority -Tony was Prime Minister.

But it is not just the law that has been transformed. So too have the attitudes of the police and the community as a whole.

One of the reasons why I was so shocked by the scale and nature of domestic violence as a young lawyer was that it was very much a hidden crime.

It happened behind closed doors and that was where many in the police and society as a whole still thought it should stay.

That is not the case any longer. All the relevant agencies both in the criminal justice system and outside treat violence against women with utter seriousness.

Violence in the home is rightly treated as an aggravating not a mitigating factor.

The public too regard those responsible for such crimes with contempt.

But, of course, while two women a week still die after attacks by their partners or former partners in the UK we have a long way to go.

We can’t and must not rest. And we must step up our efforts, too, to tackle violence against women of every type and on every continent.

For I have heard on visits with Tony and by myself that violence against women is international and endemic.

In India, I have heard about the killing of baby girls and the harassment of widows.

I have listened in tears to the stories of violence in Rwanda where the most appalling violence against women was used as a weapon of ethnic hatred.

I also felt inspired and moved by the incredible efforts of women there to heal the scars of the country.

I have talked to women where violence against them is seen as everyday custom, where they are not regarded as equals in the 21st century but as possessions.

I have also marvelled at their courage of those who simply refused to accept this position, no matter what the consequences.

They need and deserve all our support. But, of course as women and as advocates, I believe - as you do - that we have a special responsibility.

We have an obligation to use our expertise and experience to help - a responsibility all of you are fulfilling - to stand up and be counted, to offer support and resources to all who need it.

We know, too, from our own experience how effective is the shield of legislation which recognises the equal worth of men and women.

Indeed, under international human rights law, states are required to protect women from attack and abuse.

But it is truly shocking that a recent UN survey of 191 states found less than half had adopted legislation that criminalized violence against women.

And of those 89 with legislation many had a very narrow definition of the violence prohibited.

This is unacceptable. This is where our fight begins.

Demanding compliance with international standards and advocating for national laws that appreciate the depth and complexity of violence against women.

We have stunning examples of such laws throughout the world - the Violence Against Women Act enacted in the US in 1994, or the Mongolian Domestic Violence Law that was passed a decade later through the efforts of the Mongolian Women Lawyers Association.

But we also know, that enacting laws is only the beginning of the process of change.

This, of course, is where the work you do is so important.

I was in DC a number of years ago and had the pleasure of sitting in on the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court.

What I saw was a brilliant refusal to be indifferent to a criminal justice system that was failing women -an insistence on creativity when the status quo was so clearly inadequate.

The coordination of the civil and criminal dimensions of domestic violence cases was precisely the innovative response necessary to ensure access to justice and enable women to seek and obtain protection.

These specialized courts have become a model for many other countries to follow - and have rightly been recognised by the United Nations for their effectiveness in addressing violence against women.

It is in this area that women judges and lawyers can take the lead.

As your esteemed member Judge Navi Pillay has said: “[w]ho interprets the law is at least as important as who makes the law, if not more so”.

A judge, informed by her unique experience, can make a decision based not only on a nuanced understanding of the law, but on the position of the women that step into her court.

When she does, she plays a critical role in transforming the life of the victim, and indeed in shaping prevailing social and judicial attitudes towards violence against women throughout the world.

It is important to recognise the very real reverberations as a result of the legal and social progress in regards to the protection of women.

We’ve seen that awareness incites action--in courts, in Parliaments, and in communities around the world.

The statutes of the ICC and its predecessor ad hoc tribunals make explicit mention of rape, when committed as part of a widespread attack against the civilian population, as a crime against humanity.

The tribunals have played a critical role in setting precedents in the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence, and in the seminal 1998 case Akayesu, the ICTR found rape as an act of genocide and an act of torture.

The victory of the Akayesu judgment gave power to the law, and just as significantly, stood as a absolute rejection of pervasive attitudes that view violence against women as incidental.

As you continue your critical work in the judiciary, it is absolutely necessary, that we support the voices of women in their communities and at every level of government.

Recently I went to Afghanistan, and was lucky enough to have lunch with a group of newly elected women MPs who told me about the battle to take their seats in the Parliament.

While the environment wasn’t a welcoming one, it wasn’t long before these women started exercising their influence.

When the very conservative Chief Justice of their country ruled out women, no matter how well qualified, from being appointed to the Supreme Court.

The women MPs gathered together to help prevent his renewal in office with the result that a less conservative Chief Justice was appointed - followed very quickly by a woman.

And this is not tokenism. It makes a huge difference in creating the law, enforcing and interpreting it.

I have no doubt the fact that the record number of women ministers - and indeed female Labour MPs - when Tony was Prime Minister played a major role in improving the position of women in the UK.

We saw not just tougher laws on domestic violence but also improvements on a whole range of issues including maternity leave, child care and work life balance.

But even so at the rate of progress in the UK, it is forecast to be another 200 years before women have equality with men in Parliament.

So we have a long way to go.

Yet while the obstacles are real, and the resistance is strong, I truly believe that our spirits are mighty.

An evening in your presence has confirmed it, and it is an honor to walk beside you. Thank you.