Women defenders of human rights: the good, the great and the gutsy

Harriet Wistrich is a beacon in the darkness that threatens to engulf the British legal system today with massive cuts in legal aid, and the prevailing culture of disbelief of asylum seekers and women escaping violence.

Rahila Gupta
12 January 2015

Harriet Wistrich

In December 2014, At Liberty’s annual Human Rights Awards ceremony, which is described on their website as a recognition of ‘the good, the great and the gutsy’, women defenders of human rights had a particularly good year: Meltem Avcil for her campaign to end detention of women asylum seekers; Refuge for their work with women escaping domestic violence; and Harriet Wistrich who won the Human Rights Lawyer of the Year award. Richly deserved it was too! In typically self-deprecating style, Harriet wondered why I wanted to interview her when I contacted her after the Awards.

Raised in a progressive North London Jewish family, Harriet describes herself as ‘instinctually feminist’ from a very early age. She became politicised at her A level college in the late 70s, a journey which continued at Oxford where she read PPE and found feminist activism which offered a positive environment in which to come out as a lesbian. She was determined not to follow a career path and hitchhiked around England with a friend looking for a congenial city in which to live. They would go to a radical bookshop in each city and inquire about left-wing households with rooms to let. They ended up in Liverpool. There was no debt burden on graduation and it was still fairly easy to get unemployment benefit which allowed Harriet time to find her niche in life. After trying her hand at filmmaking with varying degrees of success, it was in her early 30s that Harriet decided to become a lawyer.

Harriet’s interest in a legal career was sparked by her involvement with abused women who were in prison for having killed their violent partners. She and her partner, Julie Bindel and other feminists, set up Justice for Women (JfW) in 1990; their first action was a well-attended picket outside the High Court in support of Sara Thornton during which JfW presented street theatre in which women dressed as judges in red gowns and wigs illustrated how sexist the judiciary was. Thornton lost that appeal, but the issue of domestic violence had caught media attention in an unprecedented way through a triumvirate of women which included Thornton, Kiranjit Ahluwalia -whose campaign was led by Southall Black Sisters, and Amelia Rossiter, a 67 year old woman who stabbed her husband to death.  JfW’s high media profile led inevitably to requests from women in prison to launch legal appeals on their behalf. Emma Humphreys, who became an iconic case for Harriet and JfW both politically and personally, was one of them.

In order to get leave to appeal for Emma, her lawyers needed a fuller statement from her than was available at the original trial. As this part of the legal process was not funded by legal aid, Harriet volunteered to draft her statement which took weekly visits to prison over a period of six months. Harriet began her two year legal conversion course at the same time, qualifying the same summer that Emma’s appeal was to be heard. It was a ‘big moment’ as Harriet describes it. ‘Emma won her appeal but she was very damaged. It was quite tough. Justice for Women (JfW) tried to set up a supported community for her to go into. We knew she’d been in prison since 17 and was very vulnerable. She couldn’t really cope with any institution. She ended up staying in our house.  We tried to stay friends with her and support her. She tested the boundaries a lot. Eventually she settled down a bit. But she was so addicted to the drug chloral hydrate that she was prescribed in prison that she was always close to overdosing on it, and that was what killed her in the end, three years after she came out of prison.’

In memory of Emma, and as a focal point for raising awareness around violence against women, JfW set up the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize in 1998 to be awarded to individual women and groups that have taken remarkable and innovative steps to campaign against violence against women. This level of personal involvement with a ‘case’ is an ever present danger when working so closely and over a long period with deeply traumatised people. The ‘professional’ approach would be to keep the dividing line in clear view and not allow it to become blurred. That is what the social worker is trained to do, but such distancing in a client-worker relationship can feel inhumane and cold, especially for women like Harriet who are driven by passion for their cause, ‘Emma became part of our family virtually. Boundaries were blurred. Sometimes it’s the only thing to do, but it is not advisable. I have never got involved with any of my clients in that way again although I have become friends with some of them after their cases were finished.’

Harriet has been involved in a series of high profile cases starting with Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by the police because they mistook him for one of the suicide bombers who had struck London underground the previous day; the case of John Worboys, the serial rapist and black cab driver which revealed catastrophic police failure to investigate; the Yarlswood sexual abuse case where a male nurse abused a vulnerable asylum seeker, ‘Sana’, in a detention centre, and Mike Hancock, a Lib Dem MP who sexually harassed a constituent. Harriet is currently representing eight women who have brought claims against the Metropolitan police for being deceived by undercover cops who used the women to infiltrate a range of political campaigns.

The Liberty website specifically mentions her ‘groundbreaking victory’ in the John Worboys case. Harriet represented two of his approximately 100 victims who decided to bring action against the police for having disbelieved their allegations when they first approached them. Given that Worboys had been found guilty and the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) had found serious failures in policing, there was an expectation that the police would settle without a lengthy legal process. However, the police decided to fight it for fear of opening the floodgates to such claims. As the police have immunity against claims of negligence in investigating crime since the precedent setting case of Hill v West Yorkshire police, Harriet had to find another route. The Hill case was brought by the mother of one of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper. Hill argued that her daughter would not have been murdered if the police had carried out an effective investigation and stopped the Ripper in his tracks. The judge found against her; although the case went all the way to the House of Lords, it is no longer possible to sue the police for negligence in investigations. Harriet circumvented this judgment by deploying the Human Rights Act, article 3, which is the right not be subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment, a legitimate way of framing rape. This places a duty on the state to protect women from rape, a duty which also incorporates the duty to have an effective criminal justice system which protects women. The judge held that there was a very clear violation of article 3 and elaborated a set of principles on the circumstances in which this duty arises. Hopefully the victory will not be short lived. The police are appealing the judgement at a hearing in May.

We talked about the usefulness of the law to advance feminist objectives.  Harriet recognises that individual cases bring only individual solutions but points to the wider impact these cases might have on specific issues. ‘By using  legal action to highlight particular issues where, for instance, domestic violence was not recognised within the homicide laws or the police are failing to effectively investigate rape, you can create not only a precedent but raise awareness and the need for change.. The individual case can be hugely significant as part of a wider political struggle. As for changing the law, I feel much more pessimistic. Once it’s out of the news everything closes in again and a backlash takes place.  In terms of rape laws, there has been an important change in relation to consent under the Sexual Offences Act but how much difference has it made to the conviction rate? Having said that, rape investigations may be better as compared to 20 years ago, but then you find more women are prosecuted for perverting the course of justice (where it is suspected that their allegation is false).  Despite the JfW cases, women who kill their abusive partners are getting convicted again and again and I wonder if anything has changed at all? Men have become quite canny at using some of the things that we’ve fought for, like using the Sex Discrimination Act to allege discrimination against them.’

All these provisos notwithstanding, a campaigning lawyer like Harriet Wistrich who has made it her life’s work to seek justice for the vulnerable and disempowered is a beacon in the darkness that threatens to engulf our legal system today with massive cuts in legal aid and the prevailing culture of disbelief of asylum seekers and women escaping violence.

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