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Baroness Helena Kennedy


Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords. She was the Chair of Charter 88 from 1992 to 1997, the Human Genetics Commission from 1998 to 2007 and the British Council from 1998 to 2004. She also chaired the Power Inquiry, which reported on the state of British democracy and produced the Power Report in 2006.

She has received honours for her work on human rights from the governments of France and Italy and has been awarded more than 30 honorary doctorates. Helena is a Chair of Justice, the British arm of the International Commission of Jurists, and is a bencher of Gray's Inn.

Throughout her career, she has been a vocal champion of civil liberties, human rights and equality. The Helena Kennedy Foundation was inaugurated in her name based on her recommendations for adult and further learning to overcome social injustice. Her most recent book is Misjustice: How British Law is Failing Women.


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Helena Kennedy to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Kennedy’s great passion is for law. She was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1972. At the age of only 24 years, just out of pupillage, she opened the famous Doughty Street chambers. Today, Kennedy is a leading barrister and expert in human rights law, civil liberties, and the constitution, as well as a leading advocate for women’s rights. In 1991, she became a QC and, in 1997, Life Peer as Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws. She holds honours from Italy and France: the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Italy’s highest ranking honour, and Commander of the Order of Academic Palms, a national honour awarded by the French Republic on distinguished academics and those who have done valuable services to universities, education, and science. To date, she has received at least 39 Honorary Doctorates.

Who is Helena Kennedy? She was born in Glasgow in 1950, one of four daughters of a newspaper print and a grocery store worker. They lived in a two-room and kitchen tenement in working-class Glasgow. Her parents were Labour and trade union activists. Socialism and Catholicism were intertwined. As Kennedy once put it, her father was “a trade union man who always had a rosary in his pocket”. She attended the Holyrood Secondary School for Girls and was the first in her family to attend Higher Education, training at the Council of Legal Education in London. The experience was initially a culture shock. She was a working-class Glasgow woman and the law at that time was dominated by men who had attended public schools. It was “like stepping into an Evelyn Waugh novel”, she recalls. The experience merely bolstered her determination to be a feisty advocate of causes that make a change and promote social justice.  She has taken on a number of unpopular causes. She has participated in some of the most important legal cases of the past decades, including (amongst many others) the Balcombe Street Siege, the 1986 Brighton bombing of Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet ministers, Michael Bettaney espionage trial, the Guildford Four appeal in 1989, and Mary Druhan’s 1999 appeal of her conviction for murder.

Kennedy has pursued this ambition through the media as well as the law courts. In the 1980s and 1990s, she created the series “Blind Justice”, based on her own experiences in law. She has presented numerous programmes, including “Heart of the Matter”, “After Dark”, and “Time, Gentlemen, Please”, which won the Television Programme Award and 1994 Industrial Journalism Award. It was in an edition of “After Dark” discussing “Do men have to be violent” that a drunk Oliver Reed insulted and kissed feminist Kate Millett on live television; he was promptly ejected from the studio. Kennedy was held in such high esteem that she was appointed a Commissioner on the BFI/BAFTA Inquiry into the future of the BBC, which reported in 1993.

In an oration of this short length, it is impossible to name all the organisations Kennedy has served. They include chairing Charter 88, the law reform organization JUSTICE, the British Council, the Human Genetics Commission, the Power Commission and Power 2010, Howard League’s commission of Inquiry into Violence in Penal Institutions for Young People, and the Booker Prize Foundation. She has been President of Women of the Year Lunch, Medical Aid for Palestinians, and the National Children’s Bureau, as well as patron of Liberty, UNLOCK, Rights Watch, and SafeHands for Mothers. Today, she is President of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, which mentors and provides scholarships for highly disadvantaged students who want to progress to Higher Education.

Helena Kennedy is passionate about reversing democratic disengagement. She believes that we need cultural pluralism within nations and cultural dialogue between nations.

One of her missions in life is to improve the lives of women. Her book Eve was Framed: Women and British Justice (1993) exposes the gender-related injustices experienced by women in law. Multiple injustices are not surprising, she notes, because the law had largely been made by white, middle and upper-class men. Kennedy recalls that when she started her legal career, male colleagues would ask “Are you planning to get married?”, as though that was going to be an impediment. However, Kennedy argues that simplistic demands for the equal treatment of women in law are part of the problem, not a solution, because they do not take women’s position “as woman” into account. This is even more the case when multiple forms of disadvantage, such as race, class, and sexual orientation coincide. In her words, “The courts have to understand what goes on beyond the courtroom doors if they want to deliver justice…. To treat as equals those who are not equal only creates further inequality”. She followed Eve was Framed with a book entitled Just Law: The Changing Face of Justice and Why It Matters to Us (2004). It was a passionate, even angry, attack on New Labour’s indifference to legal freedoms. She is a woman of principles as well as power. In the House of Lords, she dissents from her Labour Party whip in one-third of votes – a unique record. Most recently, in 2018, her book Eve was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing shows the extent to which women are being let down by a justice system designed with men in mind. It is a book guaranteed to make anyone committed to justice outraged.

Kennedy serves our cause: Higher Education. She is a leading advocate for more inclusive, accessible universities. From 1994 to 2001, she served as the first Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University. From 2011, she became principal of Mansfield College Oxford, which recruits more than 80 per cent of its students from the state sector – a huge improvement on all other colleges at Oxford. When she retired from Mansfield, she became the first woman Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University. Most important, she shares Birkbeck’s ethos – that is, promoting Higher Education for everyone, and not only the privileged few.

Finally, Kennedy has two sons and a daughter, and is married to a distinguished head and neck surgeon. Like her parents, she is a devout Roman Catholic, in part because of her love of ritual. She is also witty and a pleasure to be around; friends and colleagues describe her as “great fun”.

Helena Kennedy believes fervently in the possibility of creating better worlds. She concedes that some progress has been made since she opened her chambers (progress often due to her hard work, it must be said), inequities remain. As she puts it, “sometimes the last mile is the hardest mile”. However, Kennedy believes that this fight for a better world involves each and every one of us, whatever our gender. In the end, a more equitable world for girls, women, and minoritized groups, is a better world for everyone. What advice does she give to students thinking about a career in human rights? Keep your “idealism alive by being in touch with the real world. The Legal profession can be very enclosed, and it is inevitably privileged…. keep close to the ground…. Do it to make a difference and be bloody-minded in pursuit of those who have little voice”. It is good guidance for us all.

By accepting this College Fellowship, Helena Kennedy signals her support of our educational mission to do just that: make a difference. We are thrilled that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.