Equal to everything: Lady Hale

Long-time legal doyenne, the ground-breaker from Yorkshire has crossed cultures and been honoured in the ‘Vogue 25’ cast of inspiring leaders. Lady Hale discusses her career, parking self-doubt and the diversity challenge


On the day the Supreme Court of England and Wales has its first female-majority sitting, I am in London. Not for the historic occasion, but to interview Lady Hale for Counsel magazine.

I am already buzzing with excitement, having just been interviewed for First 100 Years. Before me was Dame Janet Smith, a fellow Northern Circuiteer, who chaired the Shipman Inquiry. So I am already awed as I enter the Supreme Court to meet with the court’s first female President, and I calm my nerves by asking how Lady Hale takes a break from law.

Sally Penni (SP) With wellbeing rising up the legal profession’s agenda, I’d like to start by asking about your off-duty interests.

Lady Hale (LH) Home and family come first. I am also very fond of the opera and theatre. I like opera because it is so dramatic and all-encompassing and a definite break from the law. I go to the opera two to three times a term. As for the theatre, we go when we can and with family when we can. It is very important to get out and about, especially as we spend so much time working from home.

SP You were spotted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

LH Yes, I was there. I go there every year with a group of friends, most of them university contemporaries of mine. We hire student flats, as it’s cheaper and self-catering. We relive our lost youth. We see all sorts of things at the International Festival and on the Fringe, from opera and serious drama to less serious drama and comedy acts.

SP Many are fascinated by the pathway you took; having come from academia. You have arguably never looked at a case from an advocate’s perspective – has that made a difference?

LH That is inaccurate. I did practise at the Bar in Manchester for a few years before concentrating full time on academic life. When I practised at the Bar there were already many women on the Northern Circuit, especially in Manchester. For example, Joanne Bracewell, Helen Grindrod and later Janet Smith were all rising stars.

SP Perhaps I’m biased as a Manchester practitioner, but would you agree that the Northern Circuit was ahead of its time?

LH I suppose it was. In 1994, when I was appointed to the High Court bench, there were six women High Court judges and five out of the six came from the Northern Circuit. The sixth was the daughter of a Liverpool solicitor.

SP You are seen out and about a great deal and are now the subject of a children’s book – all of which seems to be breaking down barriers and making the judiciary more accessible and a point of inspiration, particularly for women. Is this a purposeful strategy on your part?

LH It is expected of Supreme Court judges to speak to student and other groups, and to prepare and give serious lectures in a wide variety of settings. I enjoy doing this. It is not a conscious strategy – it’s part of the job. I try to go to places outside London, and not just Oxford and Cambridge.

SP How do you decide where to go?

LH It depends who asks and also what obligations I have with court work. I go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as often as possible because we are the Supreme Court for the whole United Kingdom. Recently, for example, I spoke at the conference of the Law Society of Scotland and at the launch of the Common Law degree at the University of Glasgow. It’s good for me to get out and about.

SP And how did the book come about?

LH The idea came from the Legal Action Group, because there had been a children’s book about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court. It raised funds to commission Henny Beaumont to do the illustrations and Afua Hirsch to write the text. The book tells the story of a little girl from Richmond in North Yorkshire – not me – who comes to visit the Supreme Court.

"I have doubted myself at every step of my career. I have asked myself if I am up to the job, particularly at the Law Commission and when I started as a judge in the criminal courts as it was something new. But it didn’t put me off and it usually turned out that I was."

SP What did you find the biggest challenge on entering the Supreme Court – and now, likewise, as President?

LH The biggest challenge was the move from the Court of Appeal to the Law Lords, a step up in the difficulty of the work and a big change in the working environment. The House of Lords is splendid but a very different place from the Royal Courts of Justice. However, the Law Lords were all incredibly welcoming and friendly, if awe-inspiring. The transition to the Supreme Court was an opportunity to improve our practise and the service we could offer to lawyers, their clients and the public. I was happy to embrace the change and I think it has been successful. As for the challenges of being President – well, my aim is to maintain the openness and transparency of what we do, and a friendly and collegiate working atmosphere amongst the Justices, as well as the quality of our decision making and judgments.

SP Have you ever doubted yourself at any stage of your career and had to galvanize yourself to push on... or have you always had innate confidence that you had the skills and qualities required for every step of your career?

LH I have doubted myself at every step of my career. I have asked myself if I am up to the job, particularly at the Law Commission and when I started as a judge in the criminal courts as it was something new. But it didn’t put me off and it usually turned out that I was.

SP Amongst your many achievements, you were the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission and the first female Law Lord. You are inspirational to so many – men and women. Do you consider to yourself to be a role model?

LH I am conscious that people consider me as such, though I didn’t set out to be. But if my story can encourage others – for example, young women from state schools in the North of England, then that can only be a good thing.

SP Although the judiciary is trying to diversify, your own career pathway might still be considered ‘alternative’. Do you think it is easier or harder to take the untrodden path today?

LH There are some academics who have been appointed to the Circuit bench and many more in tribunals, but so far only three of us have come to the High Court bench. My personal view is we should be looking for talent in as many places as possible. This may involve confronting our own unconscious biases, or even conscious biases, as to what constitutes merit. There is still work to be done in learning how to recognise merit where merit exists.

SP There are now three women judges in the Supreme Court. Do you think that’s job done?

LH Of course it was significant to have three women out of the five on the bench, but it was just another day. I don’t think the style of the hearing was any different. It was good to hear counsel addressing the court as ‘my Ladies and my Lords’. But of course it’s not job done. Women are still underrepresented, especially at the higher levels of the judiciary, compared with the numbers entering the profession. But diversity is not just about women. We need more BAME [British, Asian and minority ethnic] judges and people from diverse professional backgrounds: solicitors, law teachers, and public sector lawyers could all be potential candidates. There is still quite a lot of work to be done, not only in persuading good candidates to put themselves forward but also in trying to assess merit without unconscious biases in favour of particular types of candidate.

SP Do you think we still need organisations such as the Association of Women Barristers, UK Association of Women Judges (of which you are President), Women in the Law UK and Women in Criminal Law? Are they still relevant?

LH They are certainly relevant. They enable women to get together to tackle some of the important issues. They enable women to gain strength from each other collectively. As far as the Association of Women Judges is concerned, we are happy to have men as members, as long as they are interested in the same things as we are, which are mainly human rights and equality issues, and not just gender.


Judge Brenda – Equal To Everything will be published this year by Legal Action Group, illustrated by Henny Beaumont and written by Afua Hirsch. Funded by individual donors and the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the book aims to inspire and introduce primary school children to the law. The LAG is raising funds for specialist educational support and teaching materials to ensure maximum reach. See: www.lag.org.uk/about-us/judge-brenda


About the interviewer: Sally Penni is a barrister at Kenworthy’s Chambers, Manchester. She is Joint Vice Chair of the Association of Women Barristers, founder of Women in the Law UK, member of the Criminal Bar Association Social Mobility Committee, Diversity Champion (UK Diversity Legal Awards) and Talking Law Podcast presenter.


© Paul Marriott/REX/Shutterstock
Category: 
Issue: 
Author details: 
Sally Penni

Barrister, Kenworthy’s, Joint Vice Chair of Association of Women Barristers, and Founder of Women in the Law