Feminism and the Law

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
2 November 2018

Gloria Allred, the most effective and fearless women’s rights attorney in America, said ‘If you are not a feminist then you are a bigot’.  By that she meant that being feminist is believing in social and economic equality, and if you don’t believe in that, then you are are a bigot and there is nothing in between.  It’s like being pregnant; either you are or you aren’t.


Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society’s fifth female president, also has a feminist agenda for her 2018-2019 plan.  In her inaugural speech she said that law firms should ensure a fair playing field for women and acknowledge the challenges faced by women, BAME and LGBT lawyers and those with disabilities.  Her plan aims to resolve the gender pay gap by developing agreed standards and best practice and promoting fair recruitment practices including the use of blind and contextual recruitment.  As a feminist lawyer I recognise that whilst discrimination in the legal profession and discrimination faced by female immigrants may look different, it is in fact all part of the same institutional problem.


Catherine Briddick in her Oxford research, ‘Sex Discrimination and UK Immigration Law’ published in 2015 concludes that ‘direct discrimination on the grounds of sex has been a feature of immigration law in the past and remains a part of the immigration process’.  Discrimination can be found even in the determination of fundamental rights such as refugee status. The UK asylum appeal statistics of 2015 showed that women were significantly more likely than men to have a Home Office refusal over turned on appeal.  In other words, the system is discriminatory at the first level.


Briddick states that discriminatory stereotypes based on gender and sexual orientation are written into the UK immigration laws and are practiced in a way that would be considered unacceptable in any other legal domain.


The labour migrants who are considered highly skilled are predominantly male and are able to benefit from the ability to bring family members with them to the UK.  They can change employer and may be eligible for the right to settle within a comparatively short time.  Whilst dependency on the employer or sponsoring body may be problematic for them, it is a disadvantage of a different order to that experienced by domestic workers who are predominantly female.


Domestic workers are entirely dependent on their employer for their immigration status and their position precarious as they are granted leave for just one non renewable period of six months.  They cannot bring family members, cannot change employers or switch to remain in the UK on a different basis and are not eligible to settle in the UK.


Kalayaan Research has shown that since the introduction of this regime in 2012 domestic workers have reported increased levels of exploitation and physical and sexual violence.  The Home Office justifies the restrictions on the basis that those who enter in this capacity are not assessed against the economic needs of the country.  The inability to switch employer is justified by reference to the existence of the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking and the limitation of leave by reference to the ability of the employer, and not the employee, to transition to life in the UK and recruit workers from the UK labour pool.


Time and again putting women at a disadvantage has been justified by the needs of the state or the law firm.  Law Society President, Christina Blacklaws rightly stated that gender equality is good for everyone as it liberates us from stereotypes and enables us to thrive in a diverse and supportive environment.  But as well as working to correct and eradicate sexism and discrimination within the Home Office and government policies we must also look at the structure and practice of our own legal profession.


The President’s timing could not be more apt as women now represent the majority of practising solicitors. In stark contrast, only one in three partners in private practice are female, only one in seven QCs are female, only one in five Hight Court judges are female and in the Supreme Court there is only three female judges out of the total of twelve.


But let us not despair, because last week I had the privilege of congratulating and celebrating with two of our most recently appointed female QCs: Amanda Weston and Sonali Naik from Garden Court Chambers.  Amanda Weston told  The Guardian that she hoped her and Sonali’s appointment will send an encouraging message to non-traditional applicants that they too can do this.


All ILPA members have one thing in common; we accept that at the core of our work is the belief that there are fundamental rights to which human beings are entitled ‘regardless of nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status’  (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  This means that we must all be feminist lawyers.