Catherine Baksi speaks to Harriet Wistrich about setting up the Centre for Women’s Justice and its high-profile work fighting for women’s rights in the criminal justice system.
From successfully challenging the Parole Board’s decision to release ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys to overturning the murder conviction of Sally Challen for killing her abusive husband, the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) has been at the forefront of some of the most high-profile cases of the past two years.
At the end of the summer, it began a legal challenge against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), claiming that the organisation had covertly changed its policy and practice in relation to decision-making on rape cases, leading to a dramatic fall in the number of prosecutions.
The small charity, which seeks to hold the state to account for its failures to protect women and girls from male violence, and to challenge discrimination in the justice system, was set up three years ago by the campaigning feminist solicitor Harriet Wistrich.
At London law firm Birnberg Peirce, Wistrich primarily worked on actions against the police and criminal appeal work, but was increasingly taking cases involving violence against women and state accountability.
‘Having come from the women’s sector with a feminist viewpoint prior to becoming a solicitor, I’d always had that context to think about in terms of work around policing and other issues,’ she says.
‘With the advent of the Human Rights Act, people could see that there were more avenues for taking legal cases around victims’ rights and more potential for providing legal interventions or remedies for victims of male violence,’ explains Wistrich.
‘Just do it’: the evolution of the CWJ
Discussing the genesis of the CWJ, she says that she and a couple of other lawyers began taking on cases, but it was all a bit ad hoc. ‘More and more people came to me and I couldn’t possibly represent everyone. So it kind of grew out of a sense that there really was a need for it.’
She adds: ‘It’s something I felt was needed for a long time.’ In fact, she had initially had the idea for a specialist organisation along the model of the human rights group Liberty, which started taking cases and strategic litigation, as well as campaigning about women’s issues, 15 years before her thought came to fruition.
Wistrich, who came to the law in her 30s after pursuing a career in film-making, had been working on tough cases, and after 20 years at the coalface was feeling ‘a bit worn out with endless work’. She took a three-month break that might have seen her quit the law.
She went travelling with her partner, the journalist Julie Bindel, and another friend, who worked as a life coach. ‘I had a bit of time to think about what I wanted to do – where I was going with my life, whether I wanted to carry on doing what I was doing or if there was something slightly different I could do,’ she says.
She sketched out her idea for the CWJ and her friend encouraged her to ‘just do it’. So Wistrich spent the last month of her break doing a feasibility study – contacting a range of women’s sector organisations, which gave her idea an enthusiastic and positive response.
Following her friend’s advice, Wistrich prepared an ‘elevator pitch’ – a succinct 30-second summary of her idea – which helped her to secure funding from The Baring Foundation to bring her plan to life.
The CWJ gained charitable status in September 2016. Initially, it was just Wistrich working from home, and three trustees. In the first year, she took one day off a week from her job at Birnberg to build up funding and raise awareness of her fledgling organisation.
She organised conferences around the country, building up the idea of collaborative working between the different sectors – women’s sector services, lawyers, academics and others. With funding secured, the CWJ was able to employ a full-time solicitor and get premises, which enabled it to apply for and gain a legal aid contract.
Now, having recently moved to new offices in vibrant Bethnal Green, the CWJ employs three full-time staff – a solicitor, a paralegal and an admin assistant. In addition, an operations manager works four days a week, a second solicitor also does four days and Wistrich works there three-and-a-half days a week, while continuing to work at Birnberg Peirce for the rest of the week. Broadcaster Samira Ahmed and Times columnist Janice Turner are among the trustees.
In the 1990s, Wistrich had been one of the co-founders of the feminist campaigning group Justice for Women, which also aims to end male violence against women. She initially considered expanding that organisation, but decided to maintain it as a purely campaigning group, free from the constraints that come with charitable status.
The CWJ’s first case came with Wistrich from Birnberg – that of Worboys, with the law firm and the CWJ working in partnership. Wistrich ran the case from Birnberg and the CWJ sorted out the crowdfunding and campaigning.
‘Birnberg is a firm that does not do publicity on the whole – it’s very diffident and not a typical firm,’ she explains. But, she continues, publicity can really help in strategic cases, not just to raise funds but to spread the word and ensure wider impact.
Coming from a media background, Wistrich is ‘pro-publicity’ and finds the press ‘generally very helpful’, but admits that on big stories fielding enquiries can be exhausting.
‘It is irritating to get loads of calls from independent film companies, all apparently BAFTA-nominated or award-winning, who want to make documentaries about Sally Challen,’ she adds.
The CWJ also worked on the judicial review brought by three women formerly involved in prostitution, challenging the government’s Disclosure and Barring Service regulations that require mandatory disclosure of ‘spent’ criminal records when applying for certain jobs or volunteer activities.
The trio, who had all been groomed into prostitution as teenagers, successfully argued that the disclosure of their convictions for soliciting was disproportionate and a breach of their right to respect for their private lives.
Despite the relentlessness, Wistrich insists: ‘I don’t work all hours under the sun.’ Her typical day starts at 7 am, listening to the radio, before taking her dog Maisie for a walk and feeding the cats.
Over the past couple of years, her work has changed from being a lawyer running her own caseload to supervising others: ‘I’m still getting used to that,’ she says.
‘In some ways, it’s quite nice, as you get to think just about the strategy, but you lose the control of cases.’
Much of her time is now spent running the CWJ, fundraising for the £200,000 a year to keep it going, and speaking at conferences and events. ‘I’ve learnt how to do PowerPoint presentations, which you don’t know as a lawyer,’ she laughs. In a bid to improve the outcomes for abused women who kill, she has sought to establish a panel of specialist lawyers who can take on their cases.
While there have been improvements in the way that the criminal justice system deals with women, Wistrich is concerned that many have gone into reverse over the last couple of years and ‘things are now getting dire’. She attributes this to funding cuts coupled with changes of personnel in the police and CPS, and a backlash following the scandals involving disclosure failures and failed prosecutions. ‘The Liam Allan case has shifted things massively in a way that is causing a lot of problems for women,’ she says.
In the wake of the scandal in relation to Mr Allan’s case, when crucial mobile phone evidence was disclosed at the last minute proving his innocence, and other similar cases, the CPS introduced digital consent forms, asking those who report crimes, including rape, to hand over their phones to the police and give them permission to look at messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.
Wistrich has criticised the police for using them in all rape cases and telling women that their cases will be dropped if they do not.
‘Based on lots of accounts from those who support rape complainants and women who have come forward to us, complainants are routinely being asked to hand over their phones.
‘In some cases, that material will be relevant to a defence, but in others it’s really questionable. We have seen cases of women who have been raped by a stranger who are being asked to hand over their whole history,’ she laments.
‘Certain categories of women – those with an insecure immigration status or who are connected with criminal gangs – are not going to come forward, if they know they have to hand over their phones,’ she adds.
The process, likened to a ‘digital strip search’, says Wistrich, acts as a further deterrent to women coming forward to report the crime, who are already put off by the culture of disbelief.
‘It’s been a huge piece of work, piecing together evidence. We believe the fall is due to a change in policy or practice by the CPS, which they absolutely deny,’ says Wistrich.
She also points to a cultural change in the prosecuting body. ‘Keir Starmer came in as director of public prosecutions and did some brilliant stuff to improve the way the CPS dealt with sexual violence.
‘Alison Saunders was still running with that, but faced a backlash over disclosure failures and collapsed rape cases during the end of her reign, and I think she just let go.’
Wistrich continues: ‘Others have come in who don’t have an interest or a feminist agenda. They just don’t care anymore,’ though she stresses that she is not especially critical of the current DPP, Max Hill QC.
‘It’s more his underlings. I think the change happened before he came in. I don’t think he’s got a special interest or understanding of the issues, but I don’t think it’s his fault,’ she says.
Where cases do go to trial, conviction rates are low. CPS figures show
that conviction rates fell by 26.9 per cent from 2,635 in 2017/18 to 1,925 in 2018/19.
Would she keep juries for rape trials? Her answer is controversial and bound to attract the ire of some defence lawyers. ‘My jury’s out on that one. I’m not sure – possibly not.
‘You could look at other options, possibly something akin to a discrimination panel, with a judge plus two specialist panel members who look at the facts and context and decide a case.’
Something like that, she suggests, might be fairer. ‘If you look at the way juries just do not convict young men, they just bring their own prejudices and views in too much,’ she says.