BOOK REVIEW / She was probably just asking for it: Christina Hardyment on a clear, spirited and detailed discussion of the way women are treated by Britain's legal system. 'Eve was Framed' - Helena Kennedy: Chatto and Windus, 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
'THIS is a polemic about the law, not an academic exercise,' warns Helena Kennedy on the very first page of this spirited, important but in the last resort ill-thought out critique of the way women are treated in the law and in the courts. It has a marvellously

appropriate cover: a Mantegna detail showing an argumentative Renaissance sibyl pointing out to a nervous-looking greybeard prophet just where the long legal scroll he is clutching goes wrong.

The chapter headings are as snappy as the title ('Naughty but Nice', 'The Wife, the Mother and the Dutiful Daughter', 'Man - Slaughter') and the back flap shows the author as the thoroughly modern QC, giving her readers the same hard stare that one can imagine her offering to unco-operative judges of a certain sex and age. It also makes mention of her sterling work in such causes as prison visiting arrangements for mothers and children, advocating Bar investigations into sex discrimination, and of much time in the media spotlight.

The book opens with an autobiographical and anecdotal description of the arcane intricacies of the Inns of Court, and of the many obstacles that confront women who aspire to practise as barristers: humiliating rituals at the compulsory dinners, chambers which shudder at the sight of a skirt, and the family-unfriendly lifestyles of circuit judges. Arching over it all is the impenetrable male clubbiness which still closes the doors of the Garrick and dozens of other even more discreet male legal networks to women.

The bulk of the text is concerned with what Kennedy sees as the discriminatory stereotyping imposed on women in our courts, whether they appear as defendants (unnatural viragos), plaintiffs (probably asked for it), or witnesses (notoriously unreliable). Far fewer women than men ever appear in the dock, but those that do, Kennedy claims, have frequently been given rather harsher sentences than their male counterparts for equivalent crimes. While criminal courts, she says, have not taken family responsibilities sufficiently into account when sentencing, so depriving children of a mother who may well have been committing the offence in order to keep them on the breadline. The true-life examples she gives seem to add up to a damning dossier of malfeasance and misogyny. Its effect is enhanced by a mode of writing which one might define as taproom confidential: 'Of course, what really happened was that that ignorant and biased old fart Judge X had eaten too much breakfast, got the names confused / been abused as a child himself.' 'Ah,' we say to ourselves, delighted to receive this insider information. 'I always thought there was more to it than I read in the papers.'

The ground becomes shakier when Kennedy moves on to gender mythologies and accuses judges of being 'patronising', or of 'infantilising' women, when they give them light sentences which take into account their feminine characteristics. She draws attention to occasions when she considers that women have been their own worst enemy. So Sarah Tisdall is criticised for the way she 'retreated to a non-combative position' when accused of betraying official secrets, in contrast to the way that Clive Ponting 'was immediately interested in challenging the charges'. She admits, though, that submissive femininity worked well for Mary Archer.

It is clear that Eve Was Framed has been nicely timed to herald, if not to pre-empt, several important reports from the Home Office and the Bar Council itself on exactly the issues that concern Kennedy. None of these reports quite bears out Kennedy's claims of a crisis in British justice. The new Bar Council report on sex discrimination in the legal profession says that, though widespread, it is 'no worse than in any other profession' and 'not deliberate'.

The criminal justice system has also emerged 'with flying colours' from the most intensive research into Crown courts ever conducted, a survey of every case in a two-week period last February. Roger Hood of the Oxford Institute of Criminology says that he has not found any evidence that women are given harsher sentences for lesser crimes. What is true is that since women are less inclined to commit violent crimes than men, a higher proportion of the (much smaller) female prison population has been imprisoned for theft.

On rereading the book, I realised that the most shocking evidences of discrimination against women that Kennedy cites were in fact notorious miscarriages of justice which speedily went to appeal. Advocates do get carried away by their own rhetoric at times. But to my mind there is too much drama in this book and too little sense of history. It appalled Kennedy that counsel for the Crown asked the jury if they would allow their 'wives or servants' to read Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960. In fact, as Philip Larkin once memorably pointed out, a remarkable cultural gulf separated the beginning and the end of the Sixties. The Lady Chatterley case was an interesting symptom of change, not an illustration of 'the outmoded attitudes of sections of the Bar in the era of the Beatles and the swinging Sixties'.

The law is a ticklish subject. Without respect for it, the foundations of civilised social intercourse are under threat. Although press attention is a crucial watchdog on judicial accountability, too much media outrage lessens that vital respect, and veils how much good practice exists. In Kennedy's own words: 'There has to be a constant fine-tuning to a changing world and a willingness to shed preconceptions.'

At a time of unusually rapid social change, there will need to be more than fine-tuning, and it is evident, from the spate of reports and commissions on the judiciary and the police, that matters are on the move.

Undoubtedly, smartly packaged polemics such as Eve Was Framed can play a useful part in giving change a helping hand, not to say a toe in the rump. But let us remember to give credit where credit is due. It is no small thing to declare: 'There is something very wrong with British justice.' To do so, you need to point to systems that work better. Kennedy cites examples of practices in the United States and Europe, but she comes down on the side of British methods on the whole. Wisely, if she is on the side of her sex.

When new anti-discriminatory sentencing guidelines were laid down in the US, the number of females in custody shot up. What price defeating discrimination for the 'women in prison' to whom this book is dedicated?