Chancellor's Dinner 2015
Arguing for the death penalty in a debating class at school ignited a lifelong passion for advocacy, Britain’s leading human rights lawyer, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, told students and alumni at the Chancellor’s Dinner in March.
Lady Kennedy of The Shaws was the guest of the University of Portsmouth Chancellor Sandi Toksvig at the formal black tie event attended by 300 current and former students, city guests and members of the University’s executive board.
Sandi interviewed her friend and leading advocate for human rights and civil liberties on stage after the dinner, held at the Guildhall, where thousands of students have graduated over the years.
Asked how the idea of law as a career first took hold, she said: Debating was a very big thing in Glasgow, even in working class schools. The very first debate I took part in was on the death penalty, which had only recently been repealed. I had to argue for. I didn’t want to, I said to the teacher I couldn’t, I don’t believe in it, and the teacher said I had to do it and that it was about setting out clear arguments. We won that debate and it was the start of what became my career and my life, though I didn’t know it at the time.”
Baroness Kennedy has acted in many of the most prominent cases during the last 30 years, including the Brighton bombing trial, bombing of the Israeli embassy, the Guildford Four and many cases of abuse against women. More recently, she has worked on cases involving terrorism, torture and national security. She is a former chair of the Human Genetics Commission and the British Council, a former chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, is currently a Labour member of the House of Lords and Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. She has received 37 honorary degrees. She was brought up in a council tenement building in Glasgow and was the first in her family to attend university.
She said that when she began her career, women, gay people and minorities had no voice in law or in government and that the system failed them because their lives weren’t understood.
Sandi asked her about her reputation for not toeing the line in the House of Lords, to which she replied “I didn’t think we had to hang our brains up with our coats.” But she had, she said, come to see great value in having a ‘chamber of elders’ to reflect on problems.
She spoke about her passion, too, for widening participation in education and said she was as passionate today about the law as when she started. “The law is still it for me – I am always persuaded back into court.”
Vice-Chancellor Professor Graham Galbraith said: “The evening was a magnificent success and gave people a renewed pride in the University and the strong sense of our growing stature and reputation.
“I am very grateful to Sandi for instituting our annual Chancellors Dinner and for inviting and then interviewing with great skill such an eminent and inspirational speaker.”
The next Chancellor's Dinner will be held on Friday, 4 March 2016. Book your tickets now.