Written by Dana Denis-Smith, founder of Spark21 and creator of the First 100 Years
I was extremely privileged to have met Baroness Hale a few times in my legal career, both times part of our First 100 Years work, looking to document and archive the history of women in the legal profession. It is an honour to be able to mark a series of “firsts” in the legal profession – her appointment as the next president of the Supreme Court in the UK, to replace Lord Neuberger.
Change for women can be excruciatingly slow-paced but today marks a historic day for women in the legal profession. 55 years since Elizabeth Lane was appointed the country’s first woman county court judge – and 52 years since she was elevated to the High Court, also a first for a woman – the Supreme Court appointed Baroness Hale as its president.
She will take up her new role on 2 October 2017 and she will be joined by a second woman on the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Black – making it a total two women lady justices. Lady Hale had been the only woman on the Supreme Court since her appointment in 2004 when the court was still known as the House of Lords.
Baroness Hale joins only a handful of women in the common law system to have risen to the very top of the judiciary. There are now 5 women presidents of the highest court across 11 jurisdictions; 3 of those women were appointed by either a woman prime minister or president.
Here’s a quick list and timeline of the others women presiding over their country’s judiciary:
Baroness Brenda Hale, UK
Inspired to read law at Cambridge by a conversation with her history teacher, Baroness Hale went on to lecture at Manchester University whilst also practicing part-time as a barrister. In 1989 she was appointed Queen’s Counsel. Among other firsts, Baroness Hale was also the first female to join the House of Lords as Lord Appeal in Ordinary, appointed in 2004. Now, in 2017, she has set another landmark as President of the Supreme Court. She said to the First 100 Years project: “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”.
Read more: First 100 Years
Susan Kiefel, Australia
Susan Keifel is the highest ranking judge in Australia, having been appointed to the High Court of Australia in September 2007 and as Chief Justice since 2017. At the time of her appointment she was a judge of the Federal Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of Norfolk Island. She served as a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1993–94 before joining the Federal Court. She was admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1975 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel, in 1987. Justice Kiefel served as a part-time Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission from 2003 to 2007. She has a Masters of Laws degree from Cambridge University.
Read More: High Court of Australia
Miriam Naor, Israel
Miriam Naor is Israel’s current president of the Supreme Court but she is due to retire in 2017 due to mandatory retirement age requirements. She studied law in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University, and joined the bar in 1972. Her early career years were spent as an attorney at the Ministry of Justice, later becoming a judge in the Jerusalem Magistrates. In May 1989, after serving as an acting judge from April 1988, she became a judge in the Jerusalem District Court. In August 2000 she was appointed deputy president of the Jerusalem court for public administration matters and from June 2001 until the end of March 2002 sat as an acting justice in the Supreme Court. This became a permanent position in June 2003.
Read More: Miriam Naor
Susan Mary Denham, Ireland
Justice Susan Denham too made history for the legal profession, when in July 2011 she was appointed the 11th Chief Justice of Ireland. She, too, was appointed to the highest judiciary office by a woman – the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. She had been a Judge of the Supreme Court since 1992. “Judge Denham was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin; University of Dublin, Trinity College; King’s Inns and Columbia University, New York, U.S.A. She was called to the Bar in 1971 and became a Senior Counsel in 1987. As a barrister she practised on the Midland Circuit and in Dublin, and had a general practice with a specialisation in Judicial Review cases. Appointed a Judge of the High Court in 1991.”
Read more: Supreme Court of Ireland
Beverley McLachlin, Canada
Justice McLachlin is the 17th and current Chief Justice of Canada and also the first woman to hold this position. She is due to retire at the end of 2017 but will be remembered as not just the first but also the longest serving Chief Justice of Canada in history. “McLachlin often stated that she envisioned no career path, and was invariably surprised when an offer would result in her rising another step up the legal ladder. However, she was also well aware of her position as a pioneer in a profession that was once an all-male preserve. She expressed satisfaction that young women lawyers perceived her as a ground-breaking role model”
Read more: Justice Mclachlin
Dame Sian Elias, New Zealand
Dame Sian was born in London of an Armenian father and Welsh mother. She became the 12th and current Chief Justice of New Zealand in 1999, thus holing the country’s highest judicial post, making history for women in law. As was not unusual for the times, she was one of the few women reading law at Auckland University’s law school in 1966. She was appointed a High Court judge in 1995 and, 4 years later, New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley appointed her as the first woman Chief Justice.
Read More: Dame Sian