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Book Review: Misjustice by Helena Kennedy

Updated: Jan 5

by Emilia Cieslak


Misjustice is an accessible primer for anyone interested in Feminist Jurisprudence. It explores the institutional discrimination faced by women who come into contact with the justice system: from the career obstacles faced by female lawyers, to the stereotypes surrounding women which from barriers to justice.


Author Helena Kennedy QC’s greatest asset is being about to take thoughtless, tabloid-esque stereotypes about women - the feckless single mother, the salacious sex worker, the aggressive woman of colour - and, using a combination of statistics and her personal experience, dismantle these toxic prejudices. Her chapter “Asking for It” does a great job of deconstructing the so-called “rape myths”, a set of prejudices which can ruin a woman’s chance for justice if she is not the “ideal victim”. This same chapter credibly explains why many women are hesitant to report sexual assault and harassment: from their anxieties about having to face the cold, and often impersonal justice system, to the lack of support structures which would allow them to take their complaints to an Employment Tribunal, to the lack of understanding within the workplace (no-one wants to be known as “the girl who got old Charlie the sack”).


Beyond active prejudice and unconscious bias, there are also structural problems within the justice system that disproportionately affect women. These include financial cuts to services such as women’s shelters and probation services, and a lack of understanding about women’s lives. For example, the justice system seldom takes into account the fact that women are often the primary care-provides for their children. Their childcare responsibilities make it difficult to comply with community sentences, leading some women to be inadvertently incarcerated.


Kennedy’s impressive writing style makes it possible for us to explore these complex issues of intersectionality and systemic injustice. Her book is clearly written, and she sets out substantive legal issues in a way which is accessible to laymen. However, one area which could be improved is in her use of anecdotal evidence. Kennedy often uses headline-making cases, or cases from her own career, to persuade us to take her view. However, these cases - which often have very emotive facts - may seem to the more discerning reader as being used for their emotional gut-punch, rather than being contextualised within the legal system. For example, Misjustice’s section on honour killings lists two full pages of recent cases, alongside distressing details such as how the victim was killed. It provides us with no context as to how these cases fit into substantive law, or whether there are improvements to be had in the handling of these cases.. Kennedy is more capable of doing this: later in the chapter, she discusses the Tasleem Begum case, where she explains the link between honour killings and the defence of provocation (now the defence of loss of self-control), and explores broader themes of cultural literacy and cultural relativism. This is a great example of how Kennedy harnesses a case study to push her argument forward; it is a shame that not all cases are used in this way.


Misjustice is written to be accessible to non-lawyers. Readers who are well-versed in the technical aspects of feminist jurisprudence may thus be frustrated by the lack of theory in this book. Moreover, Kennedy’s emphasis on key topics is uneven: She spends a whole chapter talking about feminist debates surrounding prostitution (the Nordic model, decriminalisation), but gives relatively brief airtime to policy models for achieving equality. Kennedy is a practitioner first, and theorist second: her opinions are rooted in her experiences working as a barrister. As such, this book works well as primer for anyone interested in feminist jurisprudence, but may not satisfy a more experienced student looking to enhance their knowledge of theory.


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Emilia Cieslak is a staff writer for OWLSS. She is interested in human rights and corporate law, especially in the ways that they interact. She is also a college rep for the Oxford University Law Society and the Oxford University Media Society. You can reach her at emilia.cieslak@keble.ox.ac.uk

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