Sarah Clarke: PPS's Marianne O'Kane recalls changes in legal perception of domestic abuse

As we set up for our interview with Marianne O’Kane I was relieved to see tea and coffee and even biscuits to the side of the boardroom table.  

Every journalist will know how much of a novelty that is. Certainly in my case as the mum of three small children whose needs always usurp my own, having a cuppa laid on may be a small gesture but it’s always a welcome one.

I proceeded to help myself but not before I’d offered my cameraman, the press officer and Marianne herself.

My actions (be they out of courtesy or conditioning or just sheer gratitude) prompted one of Northern Ireland’s most senior prosecutors - who heads up the organisation’s serious crime unit - looking into murders, rapes, human trafficking and who oversees 50,000 prosecution decisions every year - to share an anecdote about a meeting with high-ranking government officials in the same room - all male. 

She’d served their refreshments before taking her seat at the table. There was a pause before one proceeded to ask for the PPS senior assistant director. 

When she explained she was ‘he’ they all looked suitably abashed and apologised for their everyday sexism.

Breezily brushing off such a blatant form of bias she also shared how as recently as 25 years ago women were forced to wear skirts when appearing in court and she recalled the day when she broke rank and donned a pair of trousers.

Similarly and around the same time when she was a solicitor in private practice how domestic violence was regarded as a lesser form of crime and how the words ‘it’s just a domestic’’ was regularly bandied about in court.

Thankfully the enforced dress code within the law has changed and the attitude towards domestic violence is changing.

Marianne O’Kane insists she never saw her career progression through a ‘gender lens’ and even today doesn’t see herself as unique as a woman in an historically male dominated legal profession - referring to the new Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan and the former Justice Minister Naomi Long as those in top jobs within the criminal justice system.

Hopefully though we can get to a day when any of us - women or men - can be confident enough in our status to serve the tea without being considered unworthy to be at the table.

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