"We need to recognise that barriers exist and work as a team to smash these glass ceilings"

Friday 10 March 2017

Criminal defence barrister Paramjit Ahluwalia, a specialist in appellate work focusing on the sentencing of women in the criminal justice system, gives her account of the barriers that remain, how we can smash them down and what inspires her to do so.

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Describe the work that you do to further gender equality and defend women’s rights

Not just I, but we at the Garden Court crime team are hugely committed to defending the rights of women, an often forgotten minority in the criminal justice system.

I am a trustee of ‘Women In Prison’ and the charity does incredible front line work to support women in custody, lobbying for the reduction of the prison population to 2020 by 2020. 

Women in prison may only represent 5% of the prison population overall – but 46% of women in custody have suffered from domestic violence and 84% of prison sentences imposed for women are for non-violent offences often linked to poverty and addiction. To advocate new laws to protect women who are victims of domestic violence requires a holistic approach, and proper consideration of implementing Bangkok Rules and safeguards for women who go on to commit offences post violence towards them.

Some of my recent work includes:

  • Representing a young women diagnosed with battered woman syndrome who had her prison sentence quashed by the Court of Appeal and replaced with a suspended sentence, for carrying drugs and SIM cards into prison.

  • Urging the Crown Prosecution Service in individual cases to take into account the domestic violence sustained by a person at the time the alleged offence was committed and consideration of the Bangkok Rules.

  • Seeking for wide scale knowledge and application of the section 45 Modern Slavery Act defence to women who have been exploited and trafficked.

What inspires you to undertake this work?

My inspiration is the generation of women who came to the UK from Punjab in the 60s. My mother for example came to the UK with no money, unable to read and write in English and started working in factories from the age of 16 to support her parents and extended family. That generation of Sikh and Punjabi women to me are examples of true feminists, not simply believing in equality but who practice it in the light of social adversity and racism.

How can we overcome barriers to achieving gender equality?

By recognising they exist and by working as a team to smash these glass ceilings.

I am fortunate to be part of a hugely committed crime team at Garden Court. From our pupils to our silks, right from the magistrates courts up to the Old Bailey we are deeply committed to the retaining and promoting of individuals - regardless of gender, ethnic or social background.

Gender equality needs to appreciate the differences that do exist. Women are primary care-givers, women are the main victims of domestic violence, and the rates of self harm and suicide currently within female prisons can not be brushed to one side. There needs to be recognition of these differences to achieve equality in the sentencing process through:

  • Increased funding for women’s centres throughout the country.

  • Recognising the need for custody to be seen as a last resort.

  • Greater funding of mental health projects designed for women - to deal with specific offence types like arson.

  • Reduction in use of prison for minor offences such as theft, and emphasis in dealing with addiction issues.

  • Smaller custodial units. Closer to home environments, so family contact is not lost.

At Garden Court Chambers, we are have celebrated International Women’s Day with a series of events featuring lawyers, activists and academics who are all striving for gender equality. Paramjit spoke at last night's event Sentencing and Beyond: Women in prison and access to mother and baby units.

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