Baroness Hale of Richmond makes a very unconventional Justice. She is the first and only woman in the Supreme Court (and as such, the most senior female judge in the United Kingdom); the Court’s only family law specialist; the first High Court judge to be promoted from academia; and a regular and passionate speaker about issues such as feminism, equality and human rights – qualities which have made her one of the Court’s most popular and well known figures. 

Brenda Hale was born in Yorkshire in 1945, the daughter of two headmasters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, education was greatly valued whilst she was growing up: she went to school at Richmond High School for Girls (a non fee paying school), and then went on to study Law at Girton College, Cambridge. She was recognised as a high achiever, gaining the only starred first (exceptional distinction) in her year at Cambridge.  Lady Hale has said that her “softline” feminist views developed as she progressed though her education. Firstly in grammar school she noticed there were only half the number of places available for girls as for boys.  Later, at Cambridge, she found that she was one of only six women amongst over 100 law students, and the ratio at the bar and the judiciary in the 1960s was similar if not worse.  Thus was born a life long interest in promoting women’s rights and social equality. 

In the early part of her career, Lady Hale concentrated on academia.  In 1966, she became an assistant lecturer at Manchester University, specialising in social welfare and family law, and she would continue to work at the University for the next 18 years.  In 1969, she was called to the Bar, having achieved the highest mark in the Bar finals that year, and began developing a part-time family law practice in combination with her academic work.  During this time, she was also one of the founding editors of the Journal of Social Welfare Law, and was a frequently published author of titles such as Mental Health Law (1976), Parents and Children: The Law of Parental Responsibility (1977), Family Law and Society: Cases and Materials (1983), and then Women and the Law (1984), a groundbreaking analysis of how gender inequality was encoded in British law, which Lady Hale (then Brenda Hoggett after her first marriage) wrote with Susan Atkins of Southampton University (who would later become Chairman of the IPCC and Director of Equality at the Cabinet Office).

In 1984, Lady Hale made history when she became the youngest person and first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission. Over the course of the next decade, she was instrumental in introducing a number of reforms, including the Children’s Act 1989, which remains the single most important piece of legislation in the UK granting protection to minors. She was appointed a Professor of Law at Manchester in 1986, and a Queen’s Counsel in 1989.  In 1990 she became a founding member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and chaired its Code of Practice Committee.

With her reputation as a legal trailblazer cemented, Lady Hale was a natural choice for elevation to the Bench, and sure enough in 1994 she left the Law Commission and was appointed a full time Judge of the Family Division of the High Court – the first academic to ever make this transition. She has continued to be involved in producing legislative reforms whilst acting as a Judge: amongst others, she played a major role in the introduction of the Family Law Act 1996 (domestic violence legislation) and the Mental Health Act 2005.

With her judicial career going from strength to strength, Lady Hale was promoted to the Court of Appeal and Privy Council in 1999 (the second ever Lady Justice of Appeal, following Baroness Butler Sloss), and then in January 2004 went one further when she became the first female Law Lord in the history of the United Kingdom.  In a lecture at the time, Lady Hale commented on why this was such an important breakthrough for the country and its judiciary as much as for her personally:

This matters because democracy matters. We are the instrument by which the will of Parliament and government is enforced upon the people. It does matter that judges should be no less representative of the people than the politicians and civil servants who govern us.”

Her judicial career is particularly impressive when considered in the light of the fact that the ratio of female to male judges in the High Court and above is still only around 7%.

Among Lady Hale’s most important decisions as a Judge are: Re D (Contact: Reasons for Refusal) [1997] 2 FLR 48 (recognition that domestic violence towards a mother can be damaging to children); R (Wilkinson) v Broadmoor Hospital [2002] 1 WLR 419 (protecting psychiatric patient from forcible treatment); R (Williamson) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment [2005] 2 AC 246 (banning of corporal punishment in schools); and Stack v Dowden [2007] UKHL 17 (introducing a rebuttable presumption that co-habiting couples own equal shares in their property).  In R (Gentle & Or) v The Prime Minister & Ors [2008] UKHL 20 (refusing application brought by the mothers of two dead soldiers for an independent inquiry into the Iraq War on grounds of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights), Lady Hale openly sympathised with the applicant mothers, stating:

If my child had died in this way that is exactly what I would want. I would want to feel that she had died fighting for a just cause, that she had not been sent to fight a battle which should never have been fought at all, and that if she had then some-one might be called to account.”

Mrs Gentle said after the case, “I am bitterly disappointed. Only Baroness Hale – a woman – has had the decency to even consider how my family and I feel.  It’s as if the other either Law Lords cannot contemplate our feelings at all.”  It is this ability to empathise with the people involved with Court cases that has helped make Lady Hale such a popular figure: and Lady Hale herself has put this down to her training as a family law judge:

We bring a different dimension [to the commercial judges] because of our different judicial experience – rather than passing judgment on the past we have been trying to rebuild shattered lives for the future. We are bound to pick up a concern for the vulnerable and defenceless.”

Most recently, in the Supreme Court, she has given judgment in R (E) v Governing Body of JFS (where she was part of a majority holding that the Jewish Free School’s policy of preferring Jewish born students was discriminatory), A v Essex County Council [2010] UKSC 33 (where she dissented against the Court’s decision to find that the failure by a local education authority to provide a severely autistic child with special needs education was not a breach of Article 2 ECHR), and R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence [2010] UKSC 29 (where she dissented against Court’s finding that soldiers in Iraq were not within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom for the purposes of Article 2 ECHR; Lady Hale repeated her view (expressed obiter in Gentle) that soldiers overseas should have the benefit of human rights protection). 

Away from the Bench, Lady Hale is a regular and occasionally outspoken public speaker.  In 2001 she criticised the old tradition of wearing wigs in Court, saying that they “deny women their femininity” and “humanise all of us into men“. She has also leant her voice in favour of gay and lesbian marriages, stating in 2003 that she saw “no difference between gay and straight couples“.  Such straight-talking has seen her frequently attacked by the right wing press, and in particular by the Daily Mail.  Recently, she has spoken about the “underlining constitutional problems” affecting the application of the Human Rights Act in practice.  She claimed the act was implemented to do an “important but radical thing“, but instead “has given rise to so many different constitutional issues on which we have to spend so much of our time“.

Lady Hale maintains her contact with academia through a variety of high level posts. She has been the Chancellor of Bristol University since 2003, and as well as her Professorship at Manchester, she holds Professorships or Fellowships at King’s College London, Nuffield College Oxford, and Girton, her old college at Cambridge.  She also continues to promote diversity in the judiciary, and is currently President of both the International Association of Women Judges and the UK Association of Women Judges.

Outside of work, Lady Hale has been married to Julian Farrand, a former colleague at the Law Commission and later the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Pensions and Insurance, for 18 years. She also has a daughter from her previous marriage to John Hoggett QC.  Her interests are listed in ‘Who’s Who’ as “domesticity, drama and duplicate bridge“. 

By Max Kalu.  Max is an A Level Student at Haverstock School in Camden, who has just completed a 6 week Career Academy Internship at Olswang.


Note: an exclusive interview with Lady Hale will be appearing on the UKSC Blog in early September.