NEWSVIEW: a doughty fighter looks back on battles which paved the way for women

Nearly 50 years ago, Isabel Sinclair knocked at the citadel of an exclusive male preserve. As Scotland gets its first woman High Court judge, Rob Robertson looks at the doors she opened

IT took a very smart person to put Sir Nicholas Fairbairn in his place when he was in full flow in the courtroom. However that's just what Isabel Sinclair QC, Scotland's oldest surviving woman advocate, did in spectacular fashion.

As she sits in her Edinburgh home the quick-witted 85-year-old remembers how the enigmatic Sir Nicholas appeared before her when she was a sheriff in Airdrie during the 1950s and persisted in calling her m'lord rather than m'lady.

As the colourful former MP deliberately called her m'lord once more the very feminine Isabel looked up at him and said: ``Mr Fairbairn if you keep calling me m'lord I will call you Miss Fairbairn.''

``Next day every paper in Scotland had the headline, `woman sheriff rebukes QC,''' laughs Isabel. ``From then on Nicky, who was a great m'lorder, called me m'lady.''

Her encounter with Fairbairn is one courtroom story which Isabel, born in Shawlands in Glasgow and educated at Glasgow University remembers with glee.

She is a woman who is still as sharp as a tack and remembers with clarity her life in the law from the time she was first called to the Bar in 1949. She was only the second woman in history to do so, and her appointment came an incredible 26 years after the first woman to be admitted, Dame Margaret Kidd.

Isabel, who was married to well-known Glasgow lawyer, Gordon MacDonald, has a host of stories, mostly about her legal friends like Ian Hamilton QC, who took the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, Sir Ian Moncrieff, who lay down on the floor of the Parliament House coffee house to use his body as a measuring tape, High Court judge Lord Stott, Lionel Diaches QC and of two up and coming juniors by the names of Malcolm Rifkind and John Smith.

More significantly she has words of encouragement for women trying to reach the top of the legal profession in the 1990s.

The comments of a woman who spent more than 30 years in the courts of Scotland before retiring aged 71 have particular relevance coming as they do only a few months after another breakthrough for women in law, that being the appointment of Hazel Aronson QC as Scotland's first female High Court judge.

``I broke the log-jam for women when I became an advocate in 1949,'' said Isabel. ``Hazel has done the same in the 1990s. She is a wonderful role model and I expect her appointment will help people realise it is quite normal for a woman to be appointed to the top bench.''

In the past the climb up the career ladder for women advocates has been painfully slow, a point Isabel concedes. However, she knocks on the head any suggestions that they had been held back by any sexist notions from within Parliament House.

``Quite simply women were reluctant to go to the Bar when I was starting off. If there aren't that many women working as advocates to begin with there is obviously less chance of them climbing the ladder. Also many women married and had families and left the law, others left because there wasn't enough work.''

Recent figures show that out of 380 practising advocates, l74 are women and out of 83 QCs, only eight are women. Although the percentage is low both the Faculty of Advocates and Isabel believe the numbers will increase in the coming years.

The up-beat message for women now is in sharp contrast to how things were for Isabel and the handful of women who joined the Bar up until the early 1960s.

Dame Margaret Kidd, was called to the bar in 1923. Known affectionately as the Granny of the Scottish Bar because she knew the name of everyone's children she was the first woman QC in Britain and also the first woman advocate to become a sheriff principal and a Dame.

Up until Dame Margaret's appointment Parliament House had been an all-male establishment. Her appointment caused great interest at the time as did the fact that she was given her own study room separate from the Advocate's library and her own gowning room.

Isabel remembers Dame Margaret with great affection. She also remembers the atmosphere, the excitement and the fun of the time in the late 1940s when she followed in her footsteps.

``To be honest I never felt like a trail-blazer. I was a woman with a law degree who wanted to follow my career. I never felt I was gate-crashing an all-male preserve.

``I never felt I was held back by the legal establishment because I was a woman. I just got on with it.

``I remember Parliament House as a glorious place to work. When I was there in 1948 doing my devilling to John Wilson, there were two great big coal fires at each end and in the morning we would all gather round them to discuss the day's work.

``I also remember all the meetings we used to have in the coffee room which used to be upstairs in Parliament House. Going up the stairs to get to it you used to hear this great thunder of male voices.

``It always makes me laugh that men think women are always talking because in Parliament House at that time they would make an incredible noise. Men think women talk all the time but I have to say male advocates are the biggest blethers I have ever met.''

BUT just why did women feel reluctant to go the Bar in the post-war years and why have things changed now?

``It seems to me that my generation of legal women lacked a bit of confidence and the attitude of society at the time put many women off.

``If women were considering going to the Bar I used to joke that if you don't get a career there you'll at least get a husband.

``Nowadays women have lots of confidence and know they can do a good job.''

It seems however, it was the attitude of clients, rather than the legal establishment, which caused the most problems for women advocates in the early days.

``The difficulties faced by women advocates like me in the early days can be summed up by an incident which happened soon after I became a QC.

``Like everybody else I got some criminal work from the Crown Office. However two men, Charles Johnston and Ian Stewart, who were called the same day as me, were getting big criminal cases and I wasn't.

``I went up to the Crown Office and asked about this and was told there were a couple of Glasgow men up for slashing people with razors who had to be represented separately.

``The Crown Office representative told me about the case and I expected him to give me the papers but instead he said he had to ask if the accused would have me first.

``So here I was, a well qualifed advocate as good as the men, having to be scrutinised by this little Glasgow thug who maybe would condescend to be defended for free by a woman!

``I was downcast and as I headed for the door the Crown Office chap, obviously having a change of heart, tried to make me feel better by saying, `don't worry, no doubt he'll take you, after all beggars can't be choosers.'

``In another case, a divorce action, I was acting for a boxer who said he never thought he would have a woman fighting for him.

``Although reactions from the clients were mixed all my fellow members of the Bar were all very courteous and supportive as were the judges.''

There was also good knock-about stuff with the judges. In one case, Isabel, sensing she was losing the argument in court, concluded with that well-worn phrase: ``I'm in Your Lordship's hands in this matter.'' Lord Guthrie, a forbidding Presbyterian judge allowed a faint smile to come across his face and said: ``Miss Sinclair, I can assure you that is the last place you are likely to find yourself.''

Isabel, who worked for 12 years as a senior journalist in Scotland and also for Radio 4's Woman's Hour before joining the Bar, said her journalistic experience helped her in her law career.

``Many of the women went straight to the Bar from university while I had been assistant editor on a Sunday paper.

``That gave me the confidence to work on a par with men. I was not scared of the work but like many people was overwhelmed by the history and importance of the place. It is steeped in Scottish history and tradition and that feeling of being part of it all is still with me even now.''

However, perhaps her best advice to women in law came when she was asked about how they performed at the Bar.

Leaning across with a devilish look in her eye she said: ``In my day there were a lot of good male advocates but a lot of really dud ones. Women can do just as well as any of them !''