Interviews

Dinah Rose QC on being a Woman in Law

id: Bright classical figures holding balance scales. Illustration by Mia Clement.

I met with Dinah Rose QC over Zoom to discuss her experience as a woman in the legal industry. For the past 30 years, Rose has been involved in many of the leading cases in human rights, as well as public, employment, and competition law. Recently, she made headlines for her involvement in the 2021 Cayman Islands case regarding whether same-sex marriage was protected by the Caymanian Constitution. Her representation of the Caymanian Government in its bid to block the High Court’s alteration of the Constitution (which would protect same sex-marriage) was controversial and resulted in backlash from the Oxford LGBTQ+ Society and the Oxford African and Caribbean Society. Despite some student groups criticising her role in the case, earlier this year the Magdalen College JCR passed a motion affirming its support for Rose as President, citing “the importance of not conflating the views of lawyers with those of their clients” and “the importance of equal legal representation for all”.

Throughout her career she has appeared in several cases advancing LGBTQ+ rights, including several seminal trans rights cases in the 1990s and a recent case in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, in which she successfully argued for LGBTQ+ couples’ right to immigration visas on the same terms as opposite-sex couples [1]; outside of her career, Dinah Rose has written personal letters to the Chief Rabbi challenging his denouncement of same-sex marriage. 

After reading history at Magdalen College in the ‘80s, she took on the Graduate Diploma in Law and joined Blackstone Chambers, where she began to specialise in discrimination cases. She was appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 2006, and was named Barrister of the year in The Lawyer awards in 2009. Currently, Rose is President of Magdalen College, becoming the first woman to hold the position. 

You took a history degree at Magdalen before taking the graduate route into law – what inspired you to make the decision to go into law?

It had quite long roots… I wanted to be a barrister from the time I was about 12. I had a friend whose mother was one of the first women QC’s – I remember seeing her once and she seemed to be this incredibly glamorous, professional woman, and it was just something I had never really seen before. It completely blew me away, the idea that you could have that kind of identity that was completely separate from the domestic sphere (again, this was in the mid-1970s). Most of the mothers that I knew, well, some of them worked part-time jobs. They were teachers, or did charity work, but they were essentially much more based around the home. So to see someone who had a completely functioning professional life elsewhere was a bit of an eye-opener. 

I also always loved debating and arguing, so the idea that you could be paid to do that was quite exciting to me. I’ve got three older brothers, so there was always a lot of debate around the dinner table!

I decided to read history, really, because I loved history. We had the enormous luxury at the time that we all had student grants, and university was seen more as an opportunity to intellectually explore things that you were interested in, and explore other things as well… most of the time here I was involved in drama. I started acting right from the beginning, and I acted in plays for all of my three years here. I loved it, and I loved performing. 

Then, I thought “Well, I ought to start thinking about getting a job”. At that stage I thought that the bar is very male-dominated and not so good for women, so maybe I should be a solicitor. I went to see the university careers service and he listened to me for about 5-minutes and he said, “You don’t want to be a solicitor; you want to be a barrister!” 

I went, “You know, it’s really hard for women.” 

He then said, “Don’t be ridiculous – just go for it!”

That was the thing that finally just gave me the confidence to decide that I would try for the bar, and that obviously turned out to be a good decision.

Throughout your career, you were involved in some ground-breaking Supreme Court cases. Could you describe the trajectory of your career?

To start, I obviously didn’t really know anything about law at all, since I studied history. I went to what was at that time City University to do the post-graduate diploma in law (that’s basically a crash course in tort, contract, admin, crime, equity, you know, the basic core subjects). I really couldn’t understand what was going on until the end of the year because we were doing six core subjects at once; it was a complete overload of cases, and I really had no idea what I was doing. I got a pupillage in a set of chambers that at that time was called 2 Hare Court (which is now Blackstone Chambers). At that time the chambers was mainly a second rank commercial set, with a couple of pioneering public lawyers there. In particular, David Pannick, who at that time was a senior Junior – he wasn’t a QC – but he had already made a big name for himself. 

I went to those chambers, and Anthony Lester, who was a pioneering human rights and equality lawyer, took me under his wing and said he wanted me to help him write an updated edition of Halsbury’s on race relations. So, just after I qualified I did an enormous amount of research on discrimination law – I basically read every discrimination case that had ever been decided, which at that time was possible to do. I’m not sure if you could do it now, but this was 1990, so it was still a possible task. At the end of that, we wrote this section in Halsbury’s, but I also had an enormous amount of knowledge of discrimination law. Very quickly, I started doing lots of discrimination cases. The first big cases I was involved in were brought by women who had been sacked from the Armed Forces for being pregnant. We had things like women getting abortions to avoid getting dismissed from the Armed Forces. We brought a test case and the court conceded that this was a breach of European law. There were then over 5,000 claims for compensation and I worked on those cases for the first couple of years in practice. They were groundbreaking cases in terms of how much compensation we got. They were really important and interesting cases, and I did discrimination cases for about 10 years.

Then the Human Rights Act was passed, and it was a logical direction for me to go in, because equality was one of the fundamental rights. I started doing human rights cases and public law cases. I also did quite a lot of work for the government.

After I took silk some of the people who had been my pupils started to bring me into cases, so I benefited from having contacts with really strong Junior barristers who got big cases. Very early on one of my juniors brought me into a case called Binyam Mohamed, about a British citizen who had been taken to Guantanamo Bay and tortured. That case was extremely high-profile, and I think it had a big impact on the work I did subsequently in human rights and public law. As I got more senior, the real speciality I developed was appellate advocacy, because what I really loved was being in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. More and more, I was being brought into cases that I hadn’t been in [in the lower courts], particularly if something had gone wrong. In fact, UNISON [4] is an example of that: I hadn’t been involved in that case in the first instance or in the Court of Appeal. I was brought in at the Supreme Court. We argued it completely differently in the Supreme Court – instead of arguing on the basis of European law, we argued it on the basis of common law fundamental rights and the right to access to justice. It seemed to me a much more attractive way to put the argument. 

So that’s kind of how it happened. It sounds like a fairly smooth trajectory, but… you don’t really have a career as a barrister. You just take a case, and then you take another case, and one thing leads to another.

You mentioned there is a lot of uncertainty working as a barrister. Were there ever times where you thought, “Oh no, what’s next?”

Yes, I had some moments of crisis at the bar. The worst was back in 2004. So this is when I was an experienced Junior and I was instructed in a big discrimination case at an employment tribunal. It was an incredibly stressful case. We were against a big firm of city solicitors and I was against a QC and a junior. We had a really small team because I was acting for the claimant, and we didn’t have much funding behind us. [There were] masses of documents… they were constantly dumping disclosure on us and in the middle of all that, I had two small children at the time and our nanny got appendicitis. She was off sick for 6 weeks and at the same time we moved house in the middle of this trial. The stress was indescribable, all of these things happening at once. What I hadn’t appreciated was that stress causes acute physical symptoms. It’s like an illness. You can’t breathe properly, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep. I lost about a stone in weight. I was getting up at half past four in the morning every day to try and cope with the workload. One morning, I got up, went to the shower, and just collapsed. That was actually the day we were due to move house. 

I remember being dragged to the doctor and saying, “I’ve got to go to court, I’ve got to go to court!” 

He said, “Look, if you were sitting here with pneumonia and I told you you weren’t fit to work you would listen to me, and I am telling you that is how sick you are.”

I just got to a place where I had no perspective on my own condition. Eventually I did take some time off, and it was a wakeup call, because I thought how did I get into this situation in the first place. I thought how can I continue at the bar if I can’t take the pressure? How am I going to manage my career? But, I did go back and I finished the case and that’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done, just to go back into that environment and pick up all the things that were incredibly triggering and do it again. But I did, and I managed, and I got to the end. 

After that I sort of found ways to manage my workload better and make sure that I didn’t take on too much work, make sure that I always had a big enough team so the stress was manageable. I never had a problem again. But it was a massive blow to my confidence. I think it’s important that people talk about things like this, because it can look like you’ve had an effortless, smooth trajectory. It’s never really like that.

Some of the cases you were involved in made quite a splash in the media – do you think that women barristers are treated differently than their male counterparts in the media?

I think it’s inevitable. I mean, the media is a part of society and society treats women differently than men. I think if you’re a woman barrister you’re always gonna be stereotyped as either a femme fatale or a ballbreaker. I was always a ballbreaker. I was stereotyped quite early on as very aggressive and tough, the tiger at the bar, all that kind of stuff. I certainly wouldn’t have been seen that way if I were a man. I think it gets noticed more if you’re a woman, and not always in a positive way.

On a wider scale, do you think the legal industry is misogynistic?

As I’ve got older, my view has slightly hardened that there remains structural misogyny in the legal profession. The judiciary are still predominantly men – there are more women now, but still, you look at the Supreme Court and there are two women and ten men. It was a bit of an eye opener, reading the diaries of Lord Hope. Lord Hope was the Deputy President of the Supreme Court and he has been publishing his diaries in chunks. He published his diaries from the earlier years of the Supreme Court, and there was this extraordinary passage in them where he described how a group of senior male judges ganged up to prevent Brenda Hale from becoming President of the Supreme Court. Of course, ultimately she became President, but when I read those passages I just found it utterly shocking and depressing. That they just decided she wasn’t clubbable, that she had views on feminism that they found rather embarrassing and awkward. And they ganged up to keep her out…

I was on a panel with Lord Dyson and I was saying to him that I thought this episode was not good and that it was probably worth looking again at how we appoint senior judges. Lord Dyson is a really lovely guy, a very liberal judge and has always been a big supporter of women, but his response was “We have the best judges in the world… there’s nothing wrong with the system” – and I’m sitting there thinking, this is the problem, that you have people who have been the beneficiaries of the existing system who are still effectively running it. You’re constantly beating your head against a brick wall telling them that it doesn’t necessarily work fairly.

Is there anything in the legal industry that you’ve faced personally that really stuck out to you as an instance of misogyny?

This was a long time ago, but I think the worst was when I was on maternity leave with my first child. When I came back to work she was 4 or 5 months old and I was still breastfeeding. A solicitor wanted me for a 6 week trial in Birmingham and I said “I’m sorry I can’t because I’m breast-feeding my baby”. He threatened to report me to the Bar Council for breach of the cab rank rule, because I refused to take the brief because I was breast-feeding. This guy, by the way, was a leading employment solicitor. 

Do you think the misogyny got better or worse as your career progressed?

I think people are less open in the way they express themselves. 20 years ago, people would say things, particularly about women judges and senior women at the bar, in my hearing, that were blatantly misogynist. I think now they’d be less likely to talk like that. Whether they still think like that is a more interesting question.

As a first-year law student at Magdalen College, I found Dinah Rose’s experiences to be encouraging. While there is still a clear structural element of misogyny in the legal industry, owing partly to the upper echelons of the legal sphere being male-dominated, the landscape is rapidly changing to become more inclusive (especially from the time of Rose’s childhood, where there were countable women QC’s). Her final point was particularly striking. The landscape of the industry is changing; one can only hope that the attitudes of practicing lawyers changes with it. Considering that the current generation of up-and-coming lawyers has a greater awareness of diversity and inclusion, with many major law firms and chambers emphasising the importance, I would place my bets that attitudes are changing for the better. It’s clear then that the legal industry is on a trajectory towards greater inclusion of women and minorities; it’s the current generation’s task to ensure that the industry continues to change for the better.

Footnotes

[1] Point 15 in Dinah Rose’s statement released in January 2021 addressing the controversy: “I have argued a number of cases that have advanced LGBTQ+ rights, including pioneering trans rights cases in the 1990s, and a recent landmark case in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, which won for gay couples the right to immigration visas on the same terms as mixed sex couples. I am due to appear in Hong Kong later this year for a claimant who is seeking the right to change the record of their gender on their identity card.”