A new group has been launched in the Midlands to support women who work in the criminal law as concerns grow over the number of women who are leaving the profession.

Women in Criminal Law (WICL), the brainchild of Katy Thorne QC, a criminal barrister based in London, was launched in London last year, with the new Midland branch now under way.

Its aim is to encourage and empower working women across the criminal justice system and help break down barriers to their success by providing advice, training, mentoring and support. 

Michelle Heeley QC, of No5 Barristers’ Chambers Birmingham office and Mary Prior QC, of The 36 Group, helped to form the Midlands Branch of the group, again to provide support for women at all levels of the profession and to encourage retention.

The organisation is open to all women who work in the criminal law, from paralegals and Chartered Legal Executives to the senior judiciary, from caseworkers to barristers’ clerks. Barristers and solicitors make up a large part of the membership and come from both prosecution and defence sides of the profession, and work in the publicly and privately-funded sectors.

Lady Justice Hallett is the patron and the founder members include the former DPP Alison Saunders, Mrs Justice Cheema, former CBA Chair, Angela Rafferty QC and the Senior District Judge of England and Wales, Emma Arbuthnot. 

Katy said: “The response to the launch of WICL has been extraordinary. We are delighted that women are joining in droves, wanting to smash through the glass ceiling. It is fantastic that the Midland Circuit is forming its own group and women in the Midlands will be supported and encouraged to succeed.”

Michelle said: “We are facing a genuine brain drain and questions are being raised about the current state of diversity in the legal profession. Many of my contemporaries have simply given up the Bar, some retraining as teachers, others going in-house. We are losing a huge pool of talent, and sadly it is almost exclusively female. If we want to achieve parity in the upper echelons of the profession, then something needs to be done.

“Regrettably, the problem seems to arise post 10 years’ call – it is a time of marriage and considering having children, and sadly the criminal Bar is very difficult to juggle with the demands of family life.

“There are some excellent employers out there, such as the CPS, who really promote flexible working, and we hope that this initiative will see other firms taking on board the positive approach the CPS has made to ensure they retain their employees.

“The unpredictable nature of the work makes planning home and work life very difficult. Working part-time is extremely hard because, if one wants to progress, one has to undertake longer, more complex cases, which one simply cannot do if only working three days a week.”

Michelle said many women faced real challenges throughout their careers, particularly at the criminal Bar. She added: “Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interests to promote diversity at the Bar. It can be difficult, but with support from others, and a good working relationship with your clerks, it is possible.

“Although part-time working in the conventional sense may not work, you could ask to do two weeks on, then one week off – and work with your clerk to accommodate home and professional life. Speaking to court listing officers may also help, as you could assist in work planning. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, it is not a sign of weakness to ask friends and family for support.”

Last night’s Nottingham launch saw speeches from Mrs Justice Carr, Janine Smith – Head of East Midlands CPS, and Katy Thorne QC, all were inspiring and encouraged professional support and networking amongst the WICL members.

No5 Barristers’ Chambers is also undertaking other initiatives to try to stop this ‘brain drain’ including the Midlands Women’s Forum, set up by Esther Gamble, which aims to provide professional support and mentoring.

Picture attached features from left to right: Janine Smith, Head of CPS East Midlands; Mrs Justice Carr DBE; Katy Thorne QC, Doughty Street Chambers and Founder of WICL; Michelle Heeley QC, No5 Barristers’ Chambers and Mary Prior QC of The 36 Group.