Exclusive with Nicky Padfield QC (Hon)

Professor Nicky Padfield QC (Hon) has made many contributions to academia and the criminal justice system. With several books, many peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and other reports to her name, she is a well-respected contributor within her field.

Currently a professor of Criminal and Penal Justice at the University of Cambridge, where she is also the Director of the Cambridge Centre for Criminal Justice, Professor Padfield has held many other roles, including Recordership and as a part-time judge from 2002-2014 – a rare appointment for an academic.

And with three children, eight grandchildren and her husband’s Parkinson’s diagnosis to deal with, life is certainly full-on! We find out a little more about what makes her tick…

How did you feel to be the first woman to be appointed Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge?

Obviously it was a huge honour and a privilege to be appointed…but it always irritated me that there was any suggestion that my appointment was because I was a woman.

Your successor is a woman. Do you take that to mean that you weren’t simply the ‘token woman’?

The appointment of Baroness Sally Morgan was fantastic! I always say to students who run clubs or societies that you are only as good as your successor!

There are now many women who are heads of Oxbridge Colleges; a difficult management job that can sometimes be underpaid. We must watch carefully when women ‘succeed’ – everything that glitters is not necessarily gold. 

What first attracted you to academia?

Firstly, the teaching aspect and the flexibility of the academic year – fabulous for a mother of three young children! Over the years, I have grown in confidence in my research; recognising that it might be useful. I remain as interested as ever in the failings of the criminal justice system. There’s no such thing as ‘neutral’ research – I believe passionately in my responsibility to point out the tensions and miseries within the system.

How has your background as a barrister supported your career in academia?

Well, I was barely a barrister for more than two minutes! I wanted to be one, but then my husband and I moved to West Africa, and then Nepal.

How have your travels, both before the start of your career to Pakistan, and later with your husband to Senegal, Gambia, Zaire and Nepal, influenced your perspective on life and career?

Hugely. I have been immensely privileged to have had these opportunities. Travel has opened my eyes and shaped me in a million ways. I am sorry that an inevitable consequence of our growing awareness of the dreadful impact of air travel on the climate will mean that fewer young people will have these opportunities. Let’s hope that ‘virtual’ travel can be developed to encourage greater understanding of global issues. I think the privileges I have enjoyed come with a responsibility to speak out. I don’t think I have spoken out enough, for example, I have not sought to speak out on television on criminal justice matters – maybe I should have.

You have spoken about your work as a Recorder enriching your teaching and research. Has your research brought changes to the criminal justice system?

Not really. The prison population has doubled in the last 40 years, even though we knowthat modern prisons generate crime, conflict and violence. They are not good at helping people lead crime-free lives. I think academics have done wonderful work, but we are not good at convincing politicians and policy makers to listen.

Your current research is on coroners’ inquests. What do you hope to achieve?

Good question! What do I want to achieve? I guess most of my research projects have developed because I want to understand a subject which has been under-studied. In this case, I want to understand whether coroners’ inquests, in the criminal justice sphere, are ‘effective’. Before we can answer that we must agree what they are designed to ‘effect’. That’s already a difficult question. My focus is on inquests into the deaths of those who commit suicide shortly after release from prison as well as inquests into the deaths of those who have been killed by someone recently released from prison. The first attract little publicity, the second much more. I’m interested to know whether the system learns lessons from these very different sorts of inquests.

At the start of your academic career, did you have any female role models?

I didn’t think of them as role models, but I would certainly identify Baroness Ruth Deech, who was my tutor at Oxford, as a wonderful mentor. It didn’t feel as though there were many successful women out there at that time. I was happy to leave the London Bar in 1979; it felt to me like a very macho and male dominated world.

You have previously written that you found the atmosphere ‘strangely chauvinist and felt second class’. How different was that to the atmosphere in academia?

Significantly. Although junior academics have not always been supported as they should. Things have improved; but we have a long way to go. We need to look out for both academics and students who don’t come from the ‘usual’ backgrounds. I am pleased to have been appointed my faculty’s director of equality, diversity and inclusion; there is much to do in that area. 

Do you think, during your career, that things have changed for women in academia?

The world has changed, of course, but what women have gained can easily be lost. Women still end up with, I think, more than their share of administration and still do the washing up and childcare! We are less good at saying, ‘no’. 

Also, I think it is often difficult for institutions to give credit for the unobtrusive academic ‘nurturing’ that many women do.

What trends should we expect to see in equality between men and women in the next five years?

I have no idea. The pandemic is going to lead to an economic lockdown which will cause much misery and perhaps create some new opportunities.

What advice would you give to women starting their careers in academia?

Have confidence in yourself. Be determined and focused. And be kind to others.

How do you juggle everything – career, family and friends?

I don’t do any more than anyone else. The business of juggling is very difficult. Finding space in your life for everything that you think is important is a challenge that most of us face. To be honest, I’m not sympathetic to the concept of ‘me time’. What does that mean? It encourages a self-indulgence which doesn’t necessarily bring contentment.

What do you find most rewarding as an academic?

Teaching – or maybe it’s just interaction with other people. Although I don’t particularly like lecturing. It’s a bit like confusing broadcasting with conversation. I enjoy talking with other people, whether students or academics and helping other people, and myself, to learn and to develop. 

I don’t much enjoy conferences though –too socially challenging!

What do you consider your greatest career achievement?

To be honest, I don’t think that way. I have been hugely lucky – lucky in my choice of partner, for example, as he knows me well and has encouraged me when I needed encouraging and tells me to shut up when I need to shut up! He’s super tolerant of the fact I spend so many hours ‘talking to’ my laptop. I am also very lucky to have my kids and their kids…I’m lucky in a million different ways.

You have a year’s sabbatical to do research. How is Coronavirus affecting your work?

Coronavirus has had a huge impact on all of us. In terms of my research it has stopped me visiting coroners or attending inquests. I’m also not working as productively as I feel I should do – that’s another challenge many women face of course; always feeling ‘guilty’. I haven’t submitted as many articles as I ‘should’ have done in the ‘opportunity’ of lockdown. Though, if we have spent more time ‘virtually’ supporting friends and colleagues during lockdown, I call that time well spent. 

When you are not working, what do you like to do?

I enjoy cooking and the challenges of our allotment. I enjoy chatting, cycling and tandeming – life’s simple pleasures really. I play the violin, (very badly), and enjoy playing in a quartet. Of course, given the pandemic we haven’t met for several months.

Are you looking forward to retirement? 

Not as such. I love my various jobs. Again, academics are lucky – they can continue to ‘hobby’ their interests and passions for as long as they are able. My husband has Parkinson’s disease which is really tough on him, and inevitably tough on me, so we are living each month as it comes. 

“Have confidence in yourself. Be determined and focused. And be kind to others.”– Professor Nicky Padfield QC (Hon)