Baroness Brenda Hale: “I shall forever be grateful to the first.”

Published 3rd June 2016

These excerpts are special previews from Baroness Brenda Hale’s video interview capture her experiences of working in the legal profession, which is currently still in edit and will be published soon. We are honoured to share the details of her experiences and journey working in the legal profession.

The journey of women in law was a very slow one at first. Women were not really visible in the law at all, but everything has changed since then. I was the middle of three daughters, we went to the local girls high school. I think there were 179 pupils there most of the time. That was, of course, half the number of places that there were at the boys school, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized the injustice of this, that they didn’t think rural girls needed educating in the same way as the rural boys. Hardly any of the teachers were married because in those days you tended to have to choose between marriage and a family and in fact I grew up thinking that’s probably what you had to do, because my mother was of the generation of trained women teachers who were obliged to give up work when they married in the 1930s. But it was wonderful, because when my father died very suddenly when I was thirteen she picked herself up, dusted off her teaching qualifications and became headmistress of the village Primary School, and looking back what a wonderful role model she was. Both my parents were wonderful role models because they believed in us girls; it was taken for granted that we would go to university, although only 5 or 6% population went to university.

My headmistress thought I stood a reasonable chance of getting in to Oxford or Cambridge. My best subject at school was history, but she was a historian and said ‘well Brenda, I don’t think you’re a natural historian, shall we try and find something else for you to study?’ I’d done constitutional history as part of my history course and I suggested law. Instead of saying ‘nonsense girl, girls don’t do law’ or ‘they only do law if law is in their family’, she said ‘oh what a good idea’. Cambridge University in the 1960s was of course deeply unjust. There were three women’s colleges and 21 men’s colleges, so the women felt a deep sense of privilege, whereas the men felt it was their right to be there. They were the ones you wanted to punch in the face, but didn’t of course.

I thought about going to the bar, but hadn’t got a scholarship to one of the Inns of Court and hadn’t liked what I saw when I went to the interview, as people were being put off going to the Bar if they didn’t have money or connections. I spent my long vacations working in solicitors firms, I enjoyed that a lot. There was something about the atmosphere of the City, possibly being a country girl, that I didn’t quite like. So I thought about teaching law, and I went to Manchester, because they had famous professors who I had read as an undergraduate, and they wanted me to qualify as a barrister to do some practice at the bar. I was very lucky to be offered a pupillage in a good set of chambers, under a very senior junior barrister at the Manchester Bar, who I was told didn’t approve of women at the bar. I asked him why he didn’t approve, as his wife was a doctor, and he said ‘Ah, well, medicine is a caring profession and women should of course be carers, but the Bar is a fighting profession and women shouldn’t fight, what’s more, they don’t know how to because they are either too stubborn or too yielding.’ It was a fascinating conversation, because he clearly hadn’t met enough women or he wouldn’t think that, but he was right about what it took to be a good barrister.

I was the second women in the chambers that I joined, and I shall forever be grateful to the first, because she welcomed me with open arms, she didn’t put the others off me, whereas it has been known sometimes for the first woman not to want to be joined by any more. I was the second woman in the Court of Appeal, and again, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss didn’t pull up the drawbridge behind her at all.

I think there are as many differences between female judges as there are between male, however much they may on paper look to fit a stereotypical pattern. The male judges I have known have all been pretty different- they have all been public school boys and Oxbridge and have all been barristers, usually in London, but their characters, personalities, approaches to judging are all different. There are some cases where women may have a greater understanding of where people are coming from, but that’s true for men as well. But there are different perspectives, because like it or not, women lead different lives from men.

The JAC (Judicial Appointments Commission) is working really hard to break down traditional assumptions, which is hard because they want people to go straight into court rather than have a training programme. There are lots of reasons for wanting a more diverse judiciary, and of course we’re not just talking about gender, we’re talking about ethnicity, professional background, social economic background as well, all sorts of dimensions of diversity. But the number one reason is legitimacy, with the public. The courts should be much more reflective of the whole of society. Think of all those able women lawyers there are out there who’ve been qualifying in equal numbers to men for decades now, and we’re wasting all their talent by not recognising it and appointing them.