Elizabeth Lane DBE

Published 13th June 2018
Elizabeth Lane DBE was an English barrister and judge. She was the first woman appointed as a judge in the County Court, and the first female High Court judge in England. She is most extraordinary since she had no formal university education gaining a career in law by her own means.

Born Elizabeth Kathleen Coulborn on 9 August 1905 in Bowden, Cheshire Elizabeth was raised by her parents Kate Wilkinson and Edward Coulborn, mill owners who received good pay and the ability to allow Lane to have an impressive home education by governesses and tutors. Before World War I Lane moved with her family to Switzerland for a year but later returned to England where she boarded at Twizzletwig School in Hindhead, Surrey from the age of thirteen and then attended Malvern Girls’ College from the age of fifteen. In her later life, she described herself as “not the studious kind”, much preferring games to schoolwork. She chose not to go to university, instead to be “done with academics and have a good time”’.

Instead she spent time with her brother, Rushton, in Montreal from 1924 where she met Randall Lane. She wed Randall in 1926 at Didsbury Parish Church, Manchester. Lane then gave birth to John Lane born in 1928 but he soon died from pneumonia after suffering brain damage as a result of epilepsy.

Elizabeth then began her legal career due to the influence of her husband who was reading at the bar. After reading his material she became intrigued, launching her career in November 1938 at the Inner Temple where she and her husband both studied law. She passed her final examinations in October 1939 and was called to the bar in 1940. Gaining a pupillage under Geoffrey Howard and then practicing at the Midland Circuit.

Her successes include being the third woman to become Kings Counsel in 1950, the first woman to be appointed Recorder of Derby in 1961, the first woman to be appointed a County Court judge in 1962, and the first woman to be appointed a judge of the High Court in 1965. Elizabeth’s significance was duly noted and she was made a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In 1971 she was assigned to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty division where she chaired the committee which investigated the operation of the The Abortion Act 1967, and ultimately wrote the majority of Volume 1 of its Report herself.

Following the death of her husband in 1975, Elizabeth retired in 197,9 moving out of the Temple to Winchester, though returning to London on an occasional basis to sit as an additional member of the Court of Appeal.

Elizabeth was made an honorary member of the Western Circuit, attending their Circuit dinners. Then in 1986 she became an honorary fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, a woman-only college. She later died of natural causes in 1988 at her home in Winchester. Elizabeth is remembered for her ability to encourage women to pursue a career at the bar.

Hollie Fletcher, University of Worcester Law Student