Dame Joyanne Winifred Bracewell DBE QC FRSA: From Acting to Law

Published 7th June 2016

Born in Manchester into a well-off family, Joyanne Bracewell was educated largely at home and became a talented child actor. As a young teenager in 1948 she appeared in two comedy films and seemed destined for a career as an actress. Baroness Brenda Hale suggested that this acting training contributed to her outstandingly clear diction and beautiful voice that she deployed in court. She moved away from a career on the stage, going to read law at Manchester University instead, and when she was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1955 it was clear that performing on the stage of courts would be her future.

Although she was the most senior judge of the family division, promoted to the high court from the circuit bench in 1990, she later spoke of the difficulties she experienced early on at the bar. The bar was still an inhospitable place for women when she joined, they were banned, for example, from attending bar mess dinners. Joyanne said at the 2006 annual dinner of the Family Law Bar Association that successive senior clerks rebuffed her attempts to find a seat when she was trying to join, and when she finally achieved a tenancy she had to sign her documents as ‘J. Bracewell’, as a precaution against solicitors discovering her gender.

However, despite these challenges, in 1978 she was appointed Queen’s Counsel, and in 1983 was made a circuit judge. In an unusual move she was subsequently made a high court judge in 1990, out of recognition for her expertise and expert knowledge about the new Children Act 1989, which she had implemented. She became one of two women among the 84 judges on the High Court bench, and was an inspiration to other women who followed her, including Baroness Brenda Hale and Janet Smith.

Known for a ‘quiet approach’, she was also very empathetic about the family problems she was resolving, approaching them with great care and humanity. In 2004 she took the unusual step of opening her court to the public to deliver judgment on her decision to transfer childcare from a mother to a father, a move that was applauded by Fathers4Justice as a sign that she was ‘one of the more enlightened members of the judiciary’. Throughout her career she was known in court for her courteous manner and measured approach, no matter what kind of provocation she received from difficult litigants or advocates.

Bracewell supported the Family Law Bar Association fervently, taking a keen interest in young people rising through the profession. She also took an interest in antiques, cookery, and wildlife conservation. She died on 9th January 2007, aged 72, leaving a legacy of inspiration for the multitude of female lawyers for who she was a role-model.