For International Women's Day 2022, Heidi Stonecliffe QC explains her journey to becoming the first woman appointed as Queen's Counsel from within the CPS.

In 2019 the UK and Ireland celebrated 100 years since the implementation of the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 which allowed women to join the legal profession. This was a significant milestone in the fight for equality, coming a year after women won the right to vote. It built on the work done by women who had taken change into their own hands and courageously fought for suffrage and it paved the way for others to play a part in the interpretation and application of the law.

In 2019 I made the decision to apply for silk. The significance of doing so, 100 years after the first woman joined the profession, was not lost on me, particularly as I made the application having had a very different route through the profession.  

When I first decided, aged 16, that I wanted to be a barrister, a teacher asked “Do women do that?”  

Since then I have witnessed significant change in how the profession is perceived and, most importantly, the role of women within it. I have strived to be a part of that change and to "lay tracks" for others who might wish to follow.

As a pupil in the early 90s I suffered the disappointment of not getting tenancy in Chambers. Whilst devastating at the time, this setback pushed me to find another way to practice which, although different, would allow me to pursue my aspirations as an advocate. I became an employed advocate in a solicitor’s firm.

In the early 2000s this was rare. I was one of only very few “in house advocates” in the Crown Court. Met with curiosity, resistance and, on occasion, naked hostility, I was determined to seek an alternative way for myself, and others, to practice advocacy.  

In 2006 I joined the CPS as one of several practitioners from the Defence Bar. Whilst this might not have been a popular decision amongst my self-employed peers, it was important for me to demonstrate that those at the employed Bar could compete with those in Chambers. That our ability was not tempered by our employment status and that we were just as independent and as able as others within the profession.

We offered an alternative for advocates, often women, who sought to juggle their beloved career with the financial commitments of raising a family or having not come from significant means. We demonstrated that, with ability and drive, we could do all that the very best of our Call at the self-employed Bar could do.

At this time, I was asked to speak regularly at my Inn of Court, to offer an alternative perspective on criminal practice, to provide insight into a side of the profession that remained relatively unheard. Change was happening and I embraced the opportunity to show what could be achieved despite perceived setbacks and despite a non-traditional route through the profession.  

I worked hard to overcome any unconscious bias in respect of “in house” counsel. I prepped my cases harder, I stretched myself to take on typically “male” cases relating to organised crime, I worked hard to demonstrate to the judiciary, opponents and other professionals that change was not just happening but that that change could benefit the profession by offering a viable, alternative career path.  

Very often I found myself standing in a Courtroom of professionals, court staff and defendants, leading for the Crown and realising that I was the only woman present. I felt an acute personal responsibility to lead the way for others and to show what could be done.

In 2020 I was appointed as Queens Counsel. I remain in practice at the CPS. Despite suggestions that it might have been easier to take silk if I were in Chambers, I made a conscious decision to apply as a woman at the employed Bar, to show what could be achieved by others who might not think silk, whilst employed, as a woman, was possible or worth the fight.

I am the fourth person to be appointed as Queens Counsel from within the CPS. I am the first woman in its history to do so. It is the culmination of more than 20 years of determination to show what could be done.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”. I feel immensely privileged to have taken some of those steps towards enduring change within the profession and for women at the Bar.  

I hope others will be inspired to have the courage to do the same, to strike out where the path is less well trod, where they might be met with initial hostility or suspicion, and to show what can be done with determination, hard work and an inability to accept anything less than they deserve.

Heidi Stonecliffe QC has worked for the CPS since 2006.

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