Representing Women Clients

Written 8th March 2022 by Alex Preston

It is International Women’s Day today – a day to celebrate, but also a day to reflect.

The significant majority of clients that we represent are men. However, when we deal with our women clients, we are conscious that it is important that we understand the particular problems that they may face in their lives.

Statistics on Women Defendants

The statistics on women defendants, and particularly those in prison, are startling;

  • Over half of women in prison have survived emotional, physical and sexual abuse in childhood
  • Nearly half were suspended/excluded from school
  • One third were in care as a child
  • 95% of children have to leave their home when their mother goes to prison
  • 3 in 5 women in prison care for children under 18
  • 70% of women prisoners have mental health problems
  • 3/5 of women prisoners are sent to prison for sentences of less than 6 months
  • Nearly half leave prison without settled accommodation
  • Non-payment of TV licence is the most common conviction for women, making up 1/3 of them, because women are more likely to open the door to inspectors.

Historically, the consideration of the particularly damaging effects that prison sentences have on women was absent in public and political discussions.  However, there has been a considerable change since the 1980s, thanks to the campaigning efforts of brilliant feminist lawyers, politicians, and campaign groups like Women in Prison and Justice for Women.

That there are still statistics like the ones above means that there is still a very long way to go. For example, racially minoritised women are two times more likely to be arrested. Racist stereotyping of, for example, black women mean that they may be viewed as being aggressive rather than having mental health problems.  We as defence lawyers need to have an awareness of these issues, otherwise they can be compounded by the criminal justice system.

Misdiagnosis of Mental Health conditions

There are other examples of ways in which mental health conditions can be missed or misdiagnosed in women.  I get referrals from all over the country to assist autistic men who are being investigated by the police and need representation. Sometimes I get referrals to represent autistic women, but they are few and far between.  This may well be because autistic women are underdiagnosed by healthcare professionals, because the diagnostic tools used to assess children and adults are developed using males.  Girls and women are socialised in a different way, so their autistic symptoms present differently – and they are therefore missed. It may even be that their autism is misdiagnosed as a personality disorder, for example.  And this matters, because if such women come into contact with the criminal justice system, they may not be given the reasonable adjustments that they are entitled to – adjustments that should ensure fair treatment.

Too often, our clients face multiple disadvantages not just because of their sex but also because of other factors such as racism or other marginalisation. This may stop them from getting the support that they need and leave them at risk of reoffending.

What solutions are there?

Organisations like Women in Prison are putting forward solutions, such as:

  • Every local authority to have a Women’s Centre
  • Trauma focussed diversion programmes for every police force
  • Reducing the use of remand
  • Ending prison sentences relating to the punishment of debt
  • Legal presumption against short sentences

On a practical level, here at Olliers, we think it important to have a proper understanding of the different types of issues that our women clients might be facing in their lives.  Where possible we will instruct brilliant women barristers who are experts in their field, if we think that that is what is required for the needs of the client. We also fundraise for organisations that help marginalised women.

Diversion from the Criminal Justice System

Looking forward, it is important that the government listens to those who work with women offenders, so that measures are put in place to divert them from the criminal justice system.  When the Minister for Justice Dominic Raab was asked about women and crime on BBC breakfast, he said “misogyny is, of course, absolutely wrong, whether it is a man against a woman or a woman against a man”.  In the past he has denied being a feminist and describes them as being “amongst the most obnoxious bigots”.

Over the last few years, ministers for justice have been and gone, sometimes after a matter of months. Who knows how long Mr Raab will last? But one might hope that he changes his views after visiting women prisons in the UK. Indeed, maybe one day he may actually come to understand what the word misogyny means.

Written by Alex Preston

Alex specialises in serious crime, inquests and inquiries. In the criminal courts she has represented clients facing the most serious charges: murder, drugs and firearms importations, historic sexual offences (often acting for teaching and medical professionals) and manslaughter by gross negligence. Many of these cases have been very high profile. Alex was appointed an Assistant Coroner sitting part time in Manchester (North) in October 2018. She is recognised as one of the UK’s leading experts on the representation of autistic clients, neurodiverse clients  and clients with learning difficulties and receives referrals from all over the UK to do this work.

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