Barrister Elizabeth Woodcraft tells Sue James how her campaigning for women’s rights led to her legal career and a life in which she has never given up fighting to protect vulnerable women.
‘It’s not just about being a lawyer, it’s about being a campaigner, taking things forward. You’re using the law in a way that will make people think,’ Liz Woodcraft tells me in the bar at the Royal Academy of Arts, Mayfair.
It’s not the first time we’ve met; I was lucky enough to have instructed Liz when I was a trainee solicitor at Gregsons in Nottingham. We only used London barristers, and Liz came up from Wellington Street for a four-day criminal trial, along with three colleagues, including a very junior barrister called Keir Starmer. I remember they were glamorous and sexy and wanted to party.
It’s not just about being a lawyer, it’s about being a campaigner, taking things forward. You’re using the law in a way that will make people think.
As I gave up family and crime very early on, our paths didn’t cross again, but Liz went on to have an amazing career: her work with Women’s Aid, acting for the women at Greenham Common, representing the wives of the striking miners, anti-apartheid protesters, clause 28 offenders, lesbian custody cases; I could go on. But at the heart has always been her passion and courage in acting for some of the most vulnerable women, and often in the most difficult cases.
I order a bottle of wine for us to share, and start to record Liz’s story. In preparation, I have read one of her novels, which she’s just relaunched as The Essex Girls. How much of herself is in there? ‘Quite a bit,’ she replies. Growing up in Chelmsford, it was all about fashion, music and friendship. As a mod, ‘I had to have a suede coat. I thought I’d be really cool and go to C&A in Oxford Street to buy mine’. With best friend Christine, she’d spend most of her time ‘hanging around outside’ or ‘walking between the Corn Exchange and the Golden Fleece, just to see who was there’.
Although clothes were important, there wasn’t much money in the household to buy them. Her parents came from a generation where it was important for the man to show he could keep his family, so her mum didn’t work in the early years. He was a trade union official but her mum was ‘the more ardent socialist of the two’. They were Labour voters. ‘Everyone voted Labour then, and went to church every Sunday,’ where, she says, her mum would sing ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ loudly during the service.
She started a diary in 1963, the year of her first CND march, and has kept one ever since. ‘I was completely happy there [in Chelmsford], it was a great life, although my diaries were full of angst, and I used to write really small so my mum couldn’t read them.’ She still has them all, apart from the one from 1967. ‘I lost it,’ she says, ‘I just don’t know where it went.’ I feel her pain.
Her parents were CND campaigners, so the Aldermaston marches were important in the family. Liz wasn’t allowed to join them until she was 12 years old. It was her mum’s rule. ‘She didn’t want us to be indoctrinated at an early age, but we were certainly indoctrinated with religion,’ she says. ‘It was a very moral upbringing.’
Finding a calling
Liz came out of Birmingham University with a philosophy degree. ‘It was lovely and I’m glad I did it, but what can you do with a philosophy degree?’ The answer, it seems, was teach. So she applied for the ‘very radical combined humanities course at Leicester University’.
Liz speaks of her time in Leicester with great affection: ‘I loved it. I loved the market and the feel of the place.’ She got a job at a school there teaching ‘some of the most difficult kids’, but during a casual conversation with the French teaching assistant, she let slip her desire to live in France, and with the help of the assistant’s mother, ended up spending a year in Tours.
It was during this time that things started to gel for her politically. Previously, she had resisted her sister’s attempts to get her to be a feminist. ‘I had thought the women’s movement to be posh and middle class, and nothing to do with me,’ she explains. ‘I thought it was all about “consciousness raising”.’
While in France, she began to read about a woman called Erin Pizzey, who had started a refuge in Chiswick for women who had suffered domestic violence. It was the first of its kind. At the time, abortion was illegal in France, and one evening ‘in some godforsaken country place’ she found herself watching a secret screening of a pro-choice film, when riot police stormed the building and seized the film. ‘All of these things make you think,’ she says.
Back in Leicester, she heard of a refuge being set up. ‘It was being discussed at a Women’s Liberation meeting and I thought, “Oh alright, if I have to go, I will,”’ she says, and ‘found it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, full of wonderful women, so I joined virtually every group that was going'.
A job came up in the Women’s Aid Federation and Liz moved down to London in late 1975, to work in the national office. ‘Almost as soon as I arrived, the phone rang with news that Jo Richardson had got a private members’ bill slot in parliament, to introduce the Domestic Violence [and Matrimonial Proceedings] Bill.’ Liz and the Federation worked closely with Jo to draft the bill that became the 1976 Act. ‘We were doing publicity for the Act, saying, “This is the most marvellous development, the police will now have the power of arrest,” but I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew that it was a good thing.’
Having done all of this work on the DV Act I thought, well, you know, the law is where it’s at, and it had that connection with women for me.
Why the bar? ‘Having done all of this work on the DV Act I thought, well, you know, the law is where it’s at, and it had that connection with women for me. I wanted to work with really clever, funny people who read books and newspapers and had a view on things.’
Her pupillage was with Stephen Sedley. ‘I think the second day in, we had to shoot over to the Court of Appeal, where they just spoke in Latin to each other, and when they stopped doing that, they started exchanging Mark Twain quotes from Huckleberry Finn, and I thought, “Maybe I’m in the wrong place.”’
At radical chambers Wellington Street: 'I didn't have a briefcase for a very long time ... and I wore jumpers, not jackets.'
Pushing the boundaries
Liz was considering where to go next when, over dinner one night, Andrew Arden convinced her to join Wellington Street, a radical set of chambers headed by Lord Gifford, and the first to set up outside the Inns of Court. I’m intrigued as to how they were allowed to do this. ‘It helps to have a Peer of the Realm as your head of chambers,’ she explains.
‘I didn’t have a briefcase for a very long time, I used to carry my briefs to court in a plastic bag,’ she says, ‘and I wore jumpers, not jackets.’ During the early years, it was a common occurrence for her to be asked if she was expecting a barrister.
The cases she was being given by solicitors ‘were driving the law’, she says, ‘they were pushing the boundaries’. The Greenham Common women ‘were always being carted off, like the suffragettes’. She laughs when she remembers a trial at Newbury Magistrates’ Court. ‘The women had been charged with criminal damage for snipping the wire round the air-base, and insisted on being tried together, all 30 of them,’ she says. What she didn’t know was they had prepared the hearing to be sung like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The women could still be heard singing while going down to the cells, after the magistrates cleared the court. I smile when Liz tells me her mum ‘had her first cup of herbal tea round the fire with the women at Greenham Common’.
Liz feels her greatest achievement was getting the judge to drop the charge of incest against a 16-year-old girl, after the girl was seduced by her biological father. But there are cases that still concern her. She tells me about one she did at my old firm, in Nottingham, when she failed to get compensation for a young woman who had been gang-raped, after the judge and prosecutor dropped the charges. Transcribing the interview later, I’m angry all over again.
What you have to say (to yourself) is that if you weren’t going to win, no one could. Because you’re not just fighting the facts, you’re fighting people’s stereotypes, people’s prejudices.
She often chose the most difficult cases. ‘What you have to say (to yourself) is that it’s the best shot they were going to get, and if you weren’t going to win, no one could. Because you’re not just fighting the facts, you’re fighting people’s stereotypes, people’s prejudices.’ She says she would frequently represent the non-biological parent in lesbian custody cases, as ‘they were often the people who didn’t get justice’.
The Wellington Street years came to an end and she went off to Mitre House for a while, and from there joined Michael Mansfield at Tooks, whom she describes as ‘an inspiration, full of colour and life’. She is now a door tenant at Garden Court, although doesn’t really practise these days, and refuses to go to the family court in Canary Wharf. ‘It’s against my principles,’ she says.
This leads us on to court closures. ‘It’s shocking, isn’t it? One of the things we were fighting for in those days of Women’s Aid was that women could go to a local magistrates’ court to get justice and protection. How dare they take them away? Justice should be available and accessible.’
I ask Liz about sexism at the bar and whether the situation has improved. She thinks it probably has – ‘there are more women now, but in contract law I think it’s still a boys’ world’ – but is worried that ‘because of university fees, I don’t think that working-class people are going to be able to go to the bar’.
She recalls being asked by a prosecutor ‘if I would like to come for a ride in his Porsche at lunchtime’ and on another occasion, during a trial at Marylebone Magistrates’ Court ‘if I would walk all over his pupil to give him pleasure, as I was wearing a pair of boots that laced up, and a skirt that day’.
She’d thought that as a working-class woman she was right at the bottom, but found it enlightening while doing a case with Farah Brown: ‘The judge treated her so much differently than he treated me, and I realised there was a pecking order and a black woman came right at the bottom.’
There’s a huge sense of modesty when you speak with Liz. She didn’t take silk, didn’t get elevated to the judging ranks, and has been generous with her time training other lawyers. But I can feel her pride when she tells me ‘I am both a queen-maker and a king-maker’ as two of her pupils have just made silk.
As we get ready to leave, I tell Liz that we have another connection, one of my oldest friends, as a young trainee, had a crush on her. When sent to clerk the hearing with Liz, as the advocate, she pinned her black triangle badge proudly on her jacket to give Liz ‘the sign’ (adopted then as a lesbian or feminist symbol of solidarity). She smiles hearing this story and says: ‘It’s always nice to know there’s a sister in the building.’
Brenda Hale (the fact she’s there but also the way she deals with cases and the world)
Court 38, Royal Courts of Justice (where I first started doing domestic violence cases)
Favourite animal case
An Animal Liberation Front case in the 1980s (favourite may not be the right word – they released animals from a laboratory – but it was a very interesting case)
Mojito (particularly in a little bar on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris)
‘Green Onions’, Booker T & the MGs
Favourite law film/TV/book
The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly (or Law and Order)
'At the bar' is a series of articles in which Sue James, winner of the outstanding achievement award at the 2017 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, interviews friends of LAG in informal settings and over a glass (or two!).