Spotlight on: Brenda Hale, Baroness of Richmond

As a woman who has been called everything from an “enemy of the people” to the “Beyoncé of the law world”, Baroness Hale of Richmond has certainly made waves in the legal sector over the course of her career. We take a look at a professional life of many firsts.

  • Last updated Jul 24, 2018 3:20:09 PM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
Image by Sam Jenkins

Name: Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond

Current role: President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

Notable for: Not only is Baroness Hale the first woman to assume the role of Supreme Court President, and the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, she was also the first and only woman to be appointed a Law Lord within the House of Lords.

Education: Born in West Yorkshire in 1945, Baroness Hale attended Richmond High School for Girls, and then went on to study at Girton College, Cambridge. She was commemorated for her studies and graduated top of her class, obtaining the only ‘starred’ first of her year group. Hale remains closely linked to Girton College; she was made an honorary fellow in 1995, and was elected Visitor in 2004. She was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1969.

Early career: At the start of her career, Hale divided her time between the Bar and working as a guest lecturer at Manchester University, where she became Professor of Law in 1986. She would go on to specialise in family law.

Career as a judge: In 1982, Hale began working as a part-time recorder. By 1994 she was a judge in the family division of the high court of justice. Hale was the first to reach this point via academic work and public service rather than via the practicing barrister route. She worked on issues surrounding children's rights and mental health capacity, both of which led to legislation being written in 1989 and 2005. In 1999 Hale entered the court of appeal, and was just the second woman to do so. At the same time, she also joined the privy council, all before becoming the first female Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2004. When the Supreme Court was formed in 2009, Hale transferred across, and in June 2013 she became deputy president of it.

A career of firsts 

Hale is notable for being the only female Law Lord, and until recently she was alone in her position as a female on the Supreme Court. She has tirelessly drawn attention to the lack of diversity at the top of the judiciary – using her own experience as an example. Her colleague on the Supreme Court, Lord Sumption, claimed that accelerating gender equality at the highest level in law could have “appalling consequences”. In response to such perspectives, Hale has cultivated herself as a consistent and outspoken voice against gender inequality.

Much of Hale’s earlier work is focused on women’s rights – in 1984 she co-authored the first survey of women’s working rights: “Women and the Law”, which unearthed key information about the role of women within working society. When she became a law lord in 2003, she created a coat of arms, with the motto Omina Feminae Aequissimae: “Women are equal to everything”, and has called for all judges to be “committed to the principle of equality for all”. In a speech in 2013, Hale said: “In modern Britain”, declared my brother Sumption in his Bar Council Law Reform Lecture last November, “the fastest way to make enemies is to deliver a public lecture about judicial diversity”. If so, I must have made a lot of enemies since I first started delivering lectures about it around the turn of the century.”

In the same speech, Hale spoke the “uncomfortable truth” that there are “so few women and BME judges, especially in the higher judiciary”. Hale used her position as both Supreme Court President and a minority within the Supreme Court group to draw attention to other discrepancies in diversity: she spoke not only about gender, but also about the lack of people from BME backgrounds and the lack of people from different educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Using her supreme court colleagues as an example – “they mostly fit the stereotypical pattern of boys’ boarding school, Oxbridge college and the Inns of Court” – Hale drew attention to the different career struggles faced by minority groups in comparison to those from more affluent backgrounds.

As with many senior figures within the law, Hale has at times attracted some negative scrutiny. In late 2016, she spoke about the prospect of the government having to replace existing EU legislation before Brexit could go forward – a move which put her in ill favour with right-wing media. She was part of a group of judges who were called “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail.

When appointed Supreme Court President, Hale said: "It is a great honour and a challenge to be appointed to succeed Lord Neuberger. I look forward to building upon his pioneering achievements, including developing closer links with each part of the United Kingdom, for example by sitting outside London, and improving the ways in which we communicate our work to the public. Recent high-profile cases mean that more people than ever before have heard of the Supreme Court, and we hope that this will help to create a broader understanding of how the judiciary serves society.”

Brenda Hale has certainly enjoyed many firsts over the course of her professional life: first female appointed to the Law Commission, the first female appointed Law Lord, and now the first female President of the Supreme Court. Yet much of the work she has done as a speaker from a feminist perspective will ensure that she is not the last woman to reach this professional level, and has gone to great lengths to open doors for other women entering the profession.

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