Britain Appoints First Woman Law Lord

Article excerpt

Twenty-three years after President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (and Lord Chancellor) Lord Falconer announced on October 23, 2003, that Dame Brenda Hale would become Britain's first woman Law Lord upon the Honorable Lord Millett's retirement in January 2004 and one of 12 judges to sit on a proposed new Supreme Court, slated to commence in 2005.1

The appointment of a woman, and of Hale in particular, was overdue. Legal journalists and court watchers had long tapped Hale to be the first woman Law Lord, and many felt the pressure on the former Lord Chancellor Irvine to appoint her was overwhelming. Yet, in July of 2002, he appointed Robert Walker instead. (Under the current system, the Lord Chancellor appoints judges with no legislative confirmation or review.) In its 1992 manifesto, Labour had supported policy proposals to create a judicial nominating commission and to diversify a strikingly homogeneous bench-yet the party had delivered on neither pledge after more than six years in office, despite pressures from distinguished barrister and part-time judge Cherie Booth (wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair), Solicitor General Harriet Harman, and other leading female members of the cabinet. The way was paved for change when Prime Minister Blair sacked Irvine in June 2003.

A breath of fresh air

Fifty-nine-year-old Hale is a breath of fresh air. She is a feminist or, as the conservative British press calls her, a "hard-line" or "radical feminist." (In such papers, modifiers are required. For example "Left" must always be preceded by "hard." Those who prefer alliteration have opted for "ferocious feminist"-papers more supportive have settled for "feisty feminist.") Court reformers are hopeful her accession is a sign that the unduly circumscribed pool from which senior judges are chosen is enlarging. Sir Thomas Legg, permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department when Hale was first appointed to the high court in 1994, dismisses criticisms of Hale's ability by senior judges-judges whose " secret soundings" determine who rises to higher office-as contempt for Hale's background as a legal academic and law commissioner rather than oral advocate and low regard for the field of family law. (Commercial law holds the highest status and dominates the higher judiciary.) Many believe it is precisely this background that makes her voice essential on the country's highest court.

Hale's path to the bench differs from the rigid path followed by her male colleagues. Hailing from Yorkshire, Hale graduated with the single-starred first class degree of her year from Girton College, Cambridge, and also received the top exam score on her Bar finals. She began her legal career as a law lecturer at Manchester University, where she rose to the rank of professor. As Brenda Hoggett, she partnered with Susan Atkins to author one of the first legal texts on women and the law in Britain (Women and the Law [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984]). In 1984, she became the youngest person and first woman appointed to the Law Commission (the official body of law reform), where she championed children's rights (resulting in the Children Act), domestic violence legislation (which became the Family Act of 1996), no-fault divorce (still not the law), and the rights of the mentally incapacitated. Such efforts earned her the labels of "anti-men" and "anti-marriage" by the right-wing press, particularly the Daily Mail, which, as one journalist dubbed it, has made her a "totemic hate figure" (Guardian, January 9, 2004).

Hale became a QC (Queen's Counsel) in 1989 and served as a recorder or part-time judge until 1993, when she became the first academic lawyer to be appointed to the High Court bench as a judge on the family division. She won The Times Woman of Achievement Award in 1999 and was appointed to the Court of Appeal (where she leaves just 2 female judges out of 36). …