Talk By Baroness Kennedy At The University Of Surrey


On 20th October the University of Surrey School of Law hosted a talk by the distinguished barrister and eminent campaigner for women’s rights and human rights, Baroness Helena Kennedy KC. The President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Max Lu, welcomed her to the University. The High Sheriff introduced her and referred to some of her many awards and achievements; to positions she has held, or holds, as a patron, trustee, or as the chair of prestigious organisations. He mentioned that she had been the Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and the Principal of Mansfield University and was now Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University. Further, he said that she holds Honorary Fellowships from the University of Cambridge, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Baroness Kennedy gave an inspirational address to the large audience, which included members of the University academic staff and students, judges, senior police officers, JPs and those working to support victims of domestic abuse.

She referred to the historic bias and prejudice against women in courts of law as well as in business. It was only in the 1970s that a woman became able to seek an injunction for domestic violence. The courts and judges had long demonstrated a different attitude to women from that towards men: the laws were made by men and they protected the property of men. Women were expected to be in the home. Plus, what happened behind closed doors was private and men wanted to keep it there. The state did not protect women or owe them a duty of care. Institutions protected their reputations at the expense of women. On the very day of the talk there was published, after seven years, the Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, referring to institutional cover-ups. Women and children had not been regarded as witnesses to be believed. That resulted, eventually, in the MeToo movement. Nobody had appreciated how women could be frozen by controlling behaviour. If they eventually reacted and killed their partner, the law of provocation offered them no defence, being drafted by men who didn’t comprehend the behaviour that led to the killing. Fortunately, the law has recently been changed, with provocation changed to loss of control, which is fairer to women who have been subjected to years of coercion and controlling behaviour. 

The Baroness spoke about the effects upon children of witnessing violence and the repercussions for the next generation. She believes attitudes are gradually changing, with the Police becoming more aware and sensitive, and judges revealing a better understanding of such matters because of improved judicial training courses.

Professor Bebhinn Donnelly-Lazarov, the Head of the School of Law, thanked the Baroness for her stimulating words and for all that she has done to support fairness for women. There were many questions from the audience, which were all answered fully and engagingly, with encouragement being given to the students to ask her questions. 

The Baroness plainly looks to the future generations to drive forward the matter of equality between the sexes. She had spoken to some students and those from agencies working with victims before giving her talk – Your Sanctuary and I Choose Freedom. She also met a person from the Big Leaf Charity, which helps displaced persons. All appreciated her interest in their work and her warmth towards them. Everyone felt privileged to have had the opportunity of hearing from a person whose life has been dedicated to achieving better justice for women. 

Photographs by Paul Stead.