I have worked in many different places over the years, and it’s only occurred to me recently just how much my experiences in each of these places have shaped and influenced me. As March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to dedicate some of my writing this month to the incredible women who have inspired me over the years.
Recently I found myself reminiscing about my time working in County Court. We had several District Judges and three Circuit Judges. One of these Circuit Judges was a woman – for the purposes of this blog, I will call her Judge P.
Judge P was a tiny Asian woman. What she lacked in height, she made up for with ferocious tenacity and the kind of silent, deadly nerve of an apex predator. The woman was terrifying. She was intelligent, sharp, took no shit, and was a fearsome presence to be around. We used to sit up straighter, quieten down and almost literally quake in our boots whenever she would walk through the offices. Sometimes, if she was in a bad mood, the ushers downstairs would call up to the office to warn us “She’s coming upstairs!” (which she only did when she had a problem with something – or someone!)
I was 19 when I started working in the court service, and I was not the gobby, confident, ballbreaking bitch I am now. I was still a badass, don’t get it twisted, but I was also shy, quiet, and terrified of getting told off! This was my first proper, grown-up job and I was so worried about getting it right. I was also utterly terrified of Judge P. The other two Circuit Judges were kindly old gentlemen who I guess either took pity on me, or they were just a lot more amenable than Judge P was. As I result, I would usually end up clerking in one of their courtrooms – Judge P was very particular about who clerked for her and only those she deemed suitable to her needs would sit in her court with her.
I’m sure you have guessed where this story is going – that’s right, one day I ended up being the only person available to clerk in court for Judge P. I was so nervous. I used to take her tea and biscuits in her office when I had been an usher, but up until this point, I had never clerked for her and I was so worried that I would do something wrong and she would actually kill me. I was genuinely petrified that I would mess something up and this pint-sized powerhouse of legal expertise would destroy me with one word – or worse, one look. She didn’t say much but she had that power, that presence, that ability to make you feel two inches tall without saying very much at all (which, obviously I have now perfected myself!). I’d heard about her utterly destroying defendants and lawyers alike – she was a leading authority on family court adoption and care cases, so as you can imagine she had to deal with some pretty tough stuff. I’d even been sat in court with one of the other judges and heard her, through the wall, yelling at someone in her court room!
Anyway, this particular hearing was not a big one – just one barrister asking for permission to do something or other – I can’t remember what exactly. Judge P had another huge case ongoing at the time and all parties in that case were in and out of the court room. This one barrister was a pain in the arse – full of his own self-importance, looking down his nose at little 19-year-old me and harassing me constantly as to when Judge P would be ready to see him. I kept explaining that she was busy and would see him as soon as she could. This did not satisfy him and he became quite verbally aggressive. I went into Judge P’s office again and explained – very apologetically, trying not to show weakness in front of this formidable woman – that he was being mean to me because he was pissed off to be kept waiting (obviously I did not say it quite like this, because even I do not speak to judges the way I speak to everyone else!).
She looked at me over the top of her glasses and said – “Bring him in.” I knew he was in trouble and that I was going to enjoy this!
So, I brought him in, sat him down, and went to bring Judge P in (judges can’t enter rooms without pomp and ceremony, you see, they have to be led in by their usher or clerk!). He was standing, as is customary, I sat by my desk and turned the tape recorder on, and Judge P took her seat.
She then verbally dressed down this barrister for what felt like at least 10 minutes straight but was in reality only a few minutes, admonishing him for bullying me, for being impatient, informing him she had a much more pertinent case going on that required her time and attention and how DARE he act like his little time extension request was more important than that?! He went such a deep shade of angry magenta he was almost purple, and I could not help smirking at him when Judge P demanded that he apologise to me, in the court room, on the record. With that, Judge P dismissed his time extension application and hot-footed it out of the room – before I could even open the door for her! The barrister didn’t even look at me as he left the court room.
I went back into Judge P’s office and thanked her for sticking up for me – and she looked at me again over the top of her glasses and smiled. I had never seen her smile before. She said something along the lines of “Well, us women have to have each other’s backs” and I felt such a swell of pride and kinship and RESPECT for her at that moment that I was no longer afraid of her. She was human after all – and she had my back!
Later on in my time at county court, I got to sit in with Judge P on a final adoption day.
Final adoption day is a precious, special day. It is the last time the family will be in court. It doesn’t take place in the court room, it takes places in the Judge’s office and is far more informal, but a clerk is required to be present anyway. In this particular instance, the child was a little boy of around 6 years old and he had two dads taking him home. I saw a completely different side to Judge P on that day. There was a little bit of paperwork to be signed but other than that, it was simply Judge P talking to this little boy – who was SO excited he couldn’t sit still – and asking him to make sure he looked after his new daddies and double checking with him that he was sure he had chosen the right ones. She gave him a card and a gift – I think it was a soft toy – and they played together for a bit, while the dads and myself just cried happy, silent tears. This woman who scared the absolute living daylights out of everyone she came across had this sweet, soft, tender side, and I feel very privileged to have shared that moment with everyone in the room that day. It was a beautiful moment of pure joy.
This was back in 2005/6 – nearly fifteen years ago. I found myself thinking about Judge P the other day and I googled her. Not much came up, other than the titles of several law books she had written over the years, but I did find out that not only had she retired, I also learned that she was THE FIRST Asian woman to ever be appointed Circuit Judge in the UK, back in the early nineties. What an absolutely monumental achievement. A woman, and an Asian, Muslim woman, no less – appointed County Court Circuit Judge. She was an absolute legend and everyone respected her. Lots of people were frightened of her, as I had once been. But I realised that she must have had had to fight tooth and nail, every step of the way, to become that formidable Judge. She absolutely SLAYED in a man’s world and I am so proud and honoured to have worked alongside her – even if only briefly. She showed me that women really can do ANYTHING men can do and we can do it well – often, we can do it better. She taught me that yes, women do have to have each other’s backs, and lift each other up, straightening each other’s crowns without letting the world know they were ever crooked. She taught me how to crush a man with one look. She also taught me, that being strong and tough doesn’t mean you have to abandon your soft side. She taught me that doing the right thing is often difficult but in the end it’s necessary. And so, she fought to make that happen. Every time.
I would love to be able to tell her how much of an impact she had on 19-year-old me, and how I still remember her today. Of our three circuit judges, she certainly was not my “favourite” at the time (That was the absolutely wonderful Judge F, who I adored!) but she is certainly the one who taught me the most. I am so grateful to have known her.