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Reflections on the Magna Carta exhibition

11 November 2015

Sarah Austin reflects on her background and discusses her contribution to the Supreme Court's Magna Carta exhibition.


At a time of tumultuous changes in Europe, the legal rights of individuals have once again been brought into sharp focus.

The Magna Carta has always fascinated me, not only for its durability, but for its intent and eventual seismic effect on the rights of individuals. Largely before then, there was no real expression of equality before the law. Although I appreciate, like ancient Greece it wasn't a universal suffrage. Indeed, such ideas did not then extend to anyone below the titled classes.

My participation started with an email invitation from the Supreme Court asking me to be one of the 12 people to take part in the proposed photographic exhibition to celebrate the Magna Carta's eight hundredth anniversary.

Initially I wasn't sure what my contribution could be, but that soon became apparent - I could represent the more familiar solicitor. The one you go to draft your will, buy a home or set up a trust for your grandchildren. Luckily, I am pretty good at being myself. However, not so great at sitting still for a photograph.

My reflection:

"As a woman from a working class and ethnically diverse background, I won the golden ticket by being born in twentieth century England. The concept of rights for all has been fundamental in enabling me to study, change careers, qualify as a solicitor and establish my own firm. Millions of women globally aren't so lucky. So every time an opportunity arises to promote my profession and especially the women in it, I am grateful.

Magna Carta did not set out to create our modern legal profession or enable the best legal aid system in the world (present cuts permitting). However, it was the opening salvo towards the more equal society that we are lucky enough to be a part of today. It changed the balance of power and the legal emphasis in order to reflect the virtues commonly ascribed to the British legal system - tolerance, fairness but most importantly equality before the law.

As with so many great ideas, it was a simple one that had unforeseen but positive consequences for subsequent generations and an inspiration for emerging democracies."

My firm was set up to provide a local solution for individuals and small businesses. It was also very attractive, that we would all write our comments on the current legal system to accompany our picture. After reading the other contributions, I wish I was more characteristically forthright about access to justice in the light of legal aid cuts and court closures, instead of just alluding to them.

After the photo shoot in late June, I only saw the chosen images the night before the exhibition opened. I was surprised at them for a while. As with all good photographers, Michael and Rosemary Waller-Bridge had captured the sitters at their most natural. The diversity of subjects was interesting and included many well-known faces.

The opening night included an address by Lord Neuberger as the president of the Supreme Court. The atmosphere was relaxed and collegial, as we all were clearly passionate about our profession and its future.

I hope in some small way I represented the women solicitors as an important part of the legal profession's present and increasingly the legal future.

The exhibition is open every weekday until 18 December, in the upstairs gallery of the Supreme Court. The bylines alone make it worth visiting and not just the portraits.

From 2 October to 18 December 2015, the Supreme Court is hosting an exhibition of photographic portraiture by Michael Waller-Bridge, as part of international commemorations to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The exhibition comprises portraits of twelve figures drawn from across the legal profession, who each offer an insight into the enduring relevance of Magna Carta in their working lives through a personal statement of around 300 words.

See Sarah's portrait

A shorter version of this article was originally published on the Women Lawyers Division website.

Tags: legal aid | access to justice | Magna Carta

About the author

Sarah Austin is a sole practitioner at her firm Austins Solicitors. She is one of the Law Society Council members representing the Women Lawyers Division. She has sat on Council since 2010, formerly for the Association of Women Solicitors and sits on the Law Society’s Legal Affairs and Policy Board, Equality Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and also chairs the Lexcel Panel.
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