Claire Palley, the U.K.’s first female Law Professor

Published 24th April 2018
In 1970, Claire Palley became a Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. When she did so, she was the first woman in the United Kingdom ever to be appointed to such a post (though Professor Frances Moran had been a law professor at Trinity College Dublin from 1944 to 1963; it is an interesting fact that these two pioneering appointments both took place on the island of Ireland).

By the time Claire Palley arrived in Belfast in 1966 to take up a position as a Lecturer in Law she had already had a very interesting and eventful life. She was born in South Africa in 1931 and grew up in the city of Durban. She studied Law at the University of Capetown, and immediately after graduating took up a post as a lecturer in the Law School. However, she remained there only a few years, leaving in 1956 to accompany her husband, Ahrn Palley, to Southern Rhodesia. The Palleys moved to Rhodesia in the belief that it would offer a more liberal political regime than the apartheid system which then existed in South Africa. However, that was not the case, and both Claire and Ahrn soon became involved in opposing the racism they found in Rhodesia.

From 1962-1970 Ahrn Palley was Rhodesia’s only Independent MP, opposing the unequal treatment of the black population and representing the predominantly black constituency of Highfield. Meanwhile, Claire had five sons, and supported Ahrn in his political work, often acting as his researcher. She also wrote a series of articles on women’s rights for a range of magazines and journals. In 1960 she returned to work as a legal academic and was largely responsible for establishing a Department of Law at the then University College of Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. However, it became clear that the Palleys’ opposition to white minority rule in Rhodesia not only led to their own social ostracization, but also to that of their sons. Consequently, they decided to educate their children abroad, and it was this decision which led to Claire taking up a lectureship in Belfast; she was promoted to Reader in 1967 before taking up a Chair in 1970.

Claire worked in Belfast during the height of ‘The Troubles’. A constitutional lawyer by discipline, she was deeply committed to human rights, and wasted no time in making known her views about the injustices she saw around her. In addition to her academic writing, she wrote numerous articles in The Times about the ‘Troubles’ criticising the actions of the British Government, and she also appeared regularly on BBC radio. Several of Claire’s letters to the Editor of The Times on the subject of Northern Ireland were also published, similarly reflecting her desire to stand up for what she thought was right. In one of these letters, co-authored with her colleague Tom Hadden, the two academics commented: “We are not satisfied that complaints against the security forces are always investigated with the vigour which they deserve if public confidence in the general conduct of the security forces is to be maintained”. That letter was published in July 1973, only 18 months after ‘Bloody Sunday’ when British troops killed 13 civil rights demonstrators, and just over a year after the infamous Widgery Report on the incident, which found in favour of the British army’s version of the event, whereby soldiers claimed that they had been shot at, though the demonstrators maintained that they were unarmed and no shots had been fired at the army – a conclusion completely discredited by the recent Saville Enquiry (to which Professor Palley gave evidence).

In 1973, Claire left Queen’s University, to take up a post as Professor of Law at the University of Kent. Not long afterwards, she also became Master of the University’s Darwin College, a post she held for eight years. She then became Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, a post she held from 1984 to 1991. During this time, she led the College through a period of much-needed expansion and development, increasing the number of students and Fellows, as well as overseeing some ambitious building projects. The Claire Palley Building at St Anne’s College is named after her. During her time at Oxford, Claire was a Council Member of the Minority Rights Group, and from 1994 to 1998 she was the UK’s member on the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. She was awarded an OBE in 1997 for services to human rights.

Claire Palley was Constitutional Advisor to the Government of Cyprus from 1980-94, a post to which she was re-appointed in 1999, until finally retiring in 2004. Her well-received monograph, An international relations debacle: the Secretary-General’s mission of good offices in Cyprus, 1999-2004, was published by Hart Publishing in 2005.

Claire Palley’s life is characterised by an enduring commitment to human rights and the rule of law. Delivering the prestigious Hamlyn Lectures in 1990, she put forward a strong argument for widespread education in human rights, noting in particular the importance of all public officials and lawyers being imbued with human rights ideas, for unless that is the case, the risk is that they will pay mere lip-service to human rights, rather than having proper respect for them. This argument, with its acknowledgement of the political reality that institutions are made up of human beings, upon whose values we must rely, is both a philosophical and practical response to the complex issues surrounding the protection of human rights, to which Claire has consistently devoted her expertise and her energy. As the first woman to hold a Chair in Law in the United Kingdom, she provided a strong role-model; a successful career woman, mother of five and woman of affairs; but above all it is her determination and success in using her professional expertise for the analysis and development of human rights which will be her lasting legacy.

Written by Fiona Cownie, Professor of Law at Keele University

Picture © National Portrait Gallery, London