The Big Interview: Mrs Justice Maura McGowan

Mrs Justice McGowan

High court judge Mrs Justice Maura McGowan talks to us about the struggle for equality at the Bar.


The Honourable Mrs Justice McGowan, or 'Maura' as she prefers to be called, is a former 2 Bedford Row QC. One of the preeminent criminal barristers of her generation, she is among the true elite of judges – female and male – in this country. She took silk in 2001 and nine years later was made a deputy high court judge. In 2013 she became chairman of the Bar Council, the first women to hold that post since 1998. Since 2014 McGowan has been a full-time high court judge.

She is a vocal critic of cuts to legal aid, and has been a fierce public advocate of women's rights and worked tirelessly to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. Suffice to say, we at Chambers Student are big fans. We caught up with the justice to get the lowdown on her own experiences and the future of gender equality in the judiciary and at the Bar.


Chambers Student: In terms of those entering bar school, we seem to be almost at gender parity. However, looking at the senior echelons of the profession, it looks as though practice of the Bar isn't translating from the educational to the professional stage. What do you think are the reasons behind this?

Maura McGowan: Men and women are joining the Bar in almost equal numbers now. That has not always been the position, so the balance is not the same all the way up to the most senior. The picture continues to improve, and improve much more quickly than some critics suggest. There is still a problem of women leaving and not returning after they start a family or take on caring responsibilities. That is not just what happens at the Bar but in other areas of work as well. Despite a lot of changes in society it’s still more often women who take on that role. Building and running a practice is very demanding and it can be difficult to balance that with an equally demanding family life. Things have changed greatly and that does influence the number of women who return. There are rent breaks for maternity leave and the Bar Council has set up the Bar Nursery. These sorts of changes don’t remove all the difficulties but they can help to make coming back easier.

“…the most important criterion is excellence. That's why I think I prefer targets to quotas.”

How long before we see another female, or a first ethnic minority, Supreme Court Justice?

I think we will see at least one more woman in the Supreme Court in the next year or two. BAME is going to take longer – the available pool is smaller and younger. For the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, the pool that you draw from is made up of people who graduated in the 70s; so it's still going to take some time because female and ethnic minority representation among graduates was just starting to open up then. The gender and ethnic balance of the new QCs is a real step towards broadening that pool. There is also a genuine desire to bring about change.

You seem to advocate a more organic approach to improving minority representation. Why do you think this is more effective than, for example, introducing quotas?

I am absolutely certain that we have to maintain standards. That means that the most important criterion is excellence. That's why I think I prefer targets to quotas. At the moment for the very senior judiciary, you are looking at people who graduated in the 60s and 70s. Back then there wasn’t a diverse enough pool. One of the good things I've seen recently is the appointment of Ajay Kakkar as chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission. He has unequivocally restated the need to balance quality with the desire to improve diversity.

“The rise in the costs of qualification can mean we increase the risk that the profession is once more being restricted to those that can afford it.”

What's the next hurdle to overcome?

Social mobility. We're doing well on gender and we are getting much better on BAME, though again we're still far from perfect. The rise in the costs of qualification can mean we increase the risk that the profession is once more being restricted to those that can afford it. We have to do all we can to prevent that risk becoming a reality. The Bar and the Inns are working very hard to improve scholarships and funding to keep the range of entrants as wide as possible.

Do you think London's status as the centre for legal disputes worldwide has created a band of elite-level barristers who demand ridiculous sums and get all the good work?

All barristers should be an elite, in the sense of being the best in their field. The legal world in London has always dealt with major international disputes, whether that’s in insurance, commercial, shipping, libel or divorce. Funnily enough, I think the sort of publicity that Russian oligarch cases bring will encourage people to think that there's a human face to all of this, and actually mean more work for more people.

What does the recent news that more women were made QC in 2016 than in a decade say about the state of gender equality at the Bar?

I am positive and optimistic that we are going in the right direction. Often the greatest signs of change go unnoticed because they are no longer remarkable. At the recent Chambers UK Bar awards all three names in the short list of top Chancery silks were women and nobody batted an eyelid.That is real progress.

Would a switch to a career judiciary, such as they have in most of Europe, help redress the gender balance amongst judges?

A career judiciary is so different in every respect from our system. Our judiciary is universally acknowledged as being very good. It would be a disaster to abandon a system that generally works very well. In a career judiciary, you would build from the bottom-up. Actually, we're getting to equality of numbers from the bottom-up anyway: more than half of judges under 40 in England and Wales are women and the numbers continue to expand as you go up by age and seniority.

“It was difficult in the 80s and 90s. There was a belief that women did family work and anything else was for the men.”

Have you ever experienced any personal discrimination in your career? What was it like starting out in the big bad world of criminal law in the early 80s?

It was difficult in the 80s and 90s. There was a belief that women did family work and anything else was for the men. In criminal work quite a lot of that discrimination came from clients who still thought that a man would fight harder for them. As in so many aspects of life, a mixture of perseverance and talent got us through.

What has been the most significant change to the legal profession during your career?

I believe that the desire to treat people equally and promote diversity is the biggest change. I recognise that we don’t always succeed and there is a long way to go but the real progress is that the vast majority wants to get it right now and even the tiny minority has been shamed into it. That wasn’t true when I started.

Do you have any advice for our readers as they embark upon the first steps of their legal careers?

Persevere. It is an intellectually challenging and hard career but once you’re established it is an incredibly satisfying profession, which is also fantastic fun, most of the time.