Dame Barbara Mills

Published 21st July 2014

In her appointment to the role of Director of Public Prosecutions in 1992, the late Barbara Mills became the first female to head the Crown Prosecution Service, presiding over a staff of 6000. Although this may sound like a daunting task, Barbara had been a trailblazer throughout her career, and, it seems, was fazed by very little. She became one of only four in her school year group to attend university, where in 1959 she made up no less than half of the cohort of just two law students at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. The ratio of students at the time was around 10 males to every female. Barbara used this disparity as an opportunity to thrive, carving out a name for herself as a high flyer, rather than allowing herself to become a female token in such a resolutely male environment. This set the tone for the rest of her career.

Barbara’s first real struggle against discrimination came when, having completed her pupillage, she attempted to secure a tenancy. By this point, she was married with two small children, and found that young mothers were not in particularly high demand for the Bar. However, in 1967 she was able to join the chambers of Edward Cussens, a top criminal chambers, which seemed to have more sympathy for women tenants than many of its contemporaries.

Barbara spent ten years as both a prosecutor and a defender, gaining a fearsome reputation in the field, before being invited in 1977 to become Junior Prosecuting Counsel, then swiftly being promoted to the position of Senior Prosecuting Counsel. This, combined with taking silk in 1986, served to bolster her reputation, and, having spent some time as Treasury Counsel at the Central Criminal Court, Barbara became head of the Serious Fraud Office. This was a completely new challenge, and Barbara had to adapt quickly to become sufficiently adept in the field of management, an area completely alien to her thus far. It was partway through her time in this post that the opportunity to become Director of Public Prosecutions arose.

Her 6 year stint in this role was not without controversy, coming at a time when public confidence in the organisation was at a low ebb, and Barbara was forced to deflect much criticism. She undertook this in a manner typical of a woman accustomed to carrying a high profile, having never shied away from controversy in her career – some of her previous cases included the prosecution of the Guinness Four, and that of Michael Fagan, who broke into the Queen’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace, both cases accruing wide public interest.

Barbara passed away in 2011, aged 70, leaving behind a legacy of opportunity for high flying women lawyers. Despite the controversies of her career, Barbara’s fellow lawyers never failed to recognise the often thankless nature of her tasks, and her popularity in these circles did not wane.