International Women’s Day 2016: Interview with Tabitha Bonney, Government Legal Department
Tabitha originally qualified as a Barrister in Australia and moved in-house very early in her career. She is qualified as a solicitor in the UK, has a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism), an LLB and a Masters in Commercial and International Law. Tabitha came to the UK in 2002 and has worked in the public sector ever since. She joined the Office of Fair Trading working in European enforcement, consumer law and policy, before taking a role as a legal adviser at the Competition Commission. Whilst at the Competition Commission, she dealt with statutory inquiries into mergers and the competition issues in markets, as well with regulation and litigation. In 2012, Tabitha moved to the Ministry of Defence, and now works for the Government Legal Department advising the MOD on a range of matters, including international law.
In 2013 Tabitha, alongside other volunteers, set up a not-for profit company to take over their local childcare services, which faced government cutbacks. Now a thriving social enterprise, the project achieved its aims of preserving jobs and a core service for families in the area.
Tabitha combines her career in legal with being a mother for what is soon to be four children! We are extremely proud to be able to feature Tabitha in this interview in celebration of International Women’s Day.
What was the trigger or the motivation behind the move to your current role?
I was in a role that, though not in an area of law that I had set out with an ambition to practice, was comfortable, it provided interesting work and I got to work with intelligent and engaging professionals. However, when I had a choice of moving up there or moving across into an area that promised to be challenging but was closely aligned to areas of practice that I had aspired to in my studies, public law, international law, humanitarian and human rights, I chose to move across. I haven’t looked back.
Which law would you change/implement, which would have a fundamental impact on women?
Anatole France said ‘the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ In the UK we have some strong equality legislation, especially since the Equality Act of 2010. However, women are increasingly affected by measures that restrict their ability to access and enforce their rights under this legislation. A discrimination claim against an employer attracts the highest level of fee in the Employment Tribunal and figures have shown a sharp decline in ET cases since the introduction of fees. Unfortunately, legislation aside, we still live in a society where there are institutional and cultural factors that negatively and disproportionately impact women and other protected groups.
Statistically the domestic burden is skewed toward women and this impacts both the way in which they can contribute to the workplace and the way in which their contribution is received. It affects the value ascribed to women’s contributions. Against this background I think it is most unhelpful to raise the hurdles to enforcing the rights that exist in law. I therefore think that it is necessary to rethink the impact of the measures restricting access to justice.
Which laws have been implemented that you consider have made a positive impact on equality?
There are lots of candidates, the most obvious being equality legislation which improves access to services and the workplace and changes the way we think about the barriers that might exist to participation. I would say that a significant step change came with the introduction of the NHS. Measures that address poverty and health have a huge effect on women who even today shoulder the greater proportion of the social care burden. The NHS has a world leading woman’s health agenda which, alongside improving health outcomes, has enabled women to balance family and career in a way that was inconceivable before its establishment.
Who is your inspiration as an equality champion?
There are so many people to choose from, inspirational thinkers, artists, and professionals. On day to day basis I am lucky to be inspired and challenged by my friends and colleagues, particularly those who are engaging, mentoring and supporting one another in their careers and personal lives. I do think, however, that it is worth mentioning this year’s Australian of the Year, Lieutenant
General David Morrison. As Head of the Australian Army Morrison instituted a zero tolerance policy for abuse and actively pursued policies encouraging diversity. He demonstrates that diversity isn’t a binary or a women’s issue. We all have a responsibility to, and will benefit from, recognising our own privilege and ensuring that those who do not share that privilege have a voice. As he famously (though not originally) said ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’.
What one thing would you encourage other lawyers to do to contribute to change?
I believe lawyers are privileged to be lawyers. We have the privilege of education and the privilege of a voice. Though our skill sets are diverse the core of them is the ability to engage and change things. Therefore we have a responsibility to not walk past things that we can address, if there is something that you care about engage and make a difference.
What can in-house lawyers do in their roles to improve equality for women?
In my experience women are quite well represented in in-house roles. I would say that the Government Legal Service is a particularly good example of a workplace that benefits from good diversity policies, though that is not to say there aren’t on-going challenges. In-house lawyers have a particular understanding of their clients, in particular their organisational needs and ways in which these needs can be accommodated. They also have the ear of their clients, lawyers help identify and address the client’s risks and challenges. As a result a little goes a long way in encouraging the adoption and development of policies that help with diversity, and in challenging policies and practices that do not.
The number of women joining the legal profession is rising. What impact do you think a more representative split at the top of the profession would have on society?
The legal system is a fundamental institution in our society. In my area of practice, public law, there is something of a dialogue between the courts and the Government about the nature of democracy, how power should be exercised and how impacts should be assessed. The voices at the top of the legal profession are highly relevant to the nature of this dialogue. The judiciary rules upon matters that affect society, or portions of society, and only diversity in constitution will bring to the bench the necessary nuance to engage with the multifaceted society that receives their decisions. The same issues apply to the voices of advocates before the bench and senior members in the advisory limbs of the profession. All these people play a role in moulding how the law is woven into the everyday. There needs to be an understanding of the everyday.
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