Her Honour Myrella Cohen QC

Published 5th August 2019
The third woman judge and fifth woman QC in the country, through the eyes of her friend and fellow judge Her Honour Dawn Freedman

Perhaps the quality I most associate with Myrella is courage. Having broken into the closed, to women, ranks of the Bar by starting her career at the Bar in her native Manchester, she followed her heart and, after marrying her beloved Mordaunt, moved to make a new start in Newcastle where he practised as a solicitor.

She didn’t need to try to emulate the men, as so many women who came after her felt they had to do. With her natural charm and formidable intellect she quickly rose to the top, all the while running her home and raising her two children within the true spirit of a “Jewish Woman of Worth”.

So respected was she by her fellows that her retirement party at Harrow was crowded with her friends and colleagues from Newcastle days, not least of whom were Lords Woolf and Taylor, at the time Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice respectively, with the valedictory speech given by Lord Taylor.

As a mother, grandmother and model Judge, she was pre-eminently suited to hear the many cases arising from the Cleveland child abuse cases. Her judgements were legendary and, with their clear appraisal of the law and the facts, a privilege to read.

She gave up all the prestige she had earned, evidenced by her title as “the Queen of Newcastle” to again follow her heart to make yet another major move, this time, to London to be near her children and grandchildren.

However, it did not take long for her to become regarded as a great Judge and she was invited to sit at the Central Criminal Court. After trying it for a few sitting, she gave it up as she didn’t like the pomp and circumstance or being so far from her new home in Edgware.

Thereafter, until her retirement, I had the enormous pleasure of being her neighbour. She occupied Court and Room 5 and I Court and Room 6 at Harrow Crown Court.

She loved to joke that she and I were the only Judges who put the chicken soup (traditional Jewish Friday night fare) on the stove to cook before Court on Fridays.

It was sometimes difficult to associate the Judge who worked so assiduously to prepare her summings up, who ruled her Court with iron discipline but such charm, courtesy and kindness to witnesses and the Bar, with the grandmother whose living room was filled not with expensive pieces of art and antiques, but her young grandchildren and their toys.

It is a testament to her lack of ego that when she became Resident Judge following the retirement of HH Henry Palmer, she declined to move to the imposing Room 1, associated with the courtroom of the Resident Judge, Court 1.

Trying the most complex rape and child abuse cases, she was of course a natural with the victims, displaying empathy with them whilst always making sure defendants felt they had had a fair trial.

There was however a problem when the concept of video recorded interviews with child witnesses and evidence via CCTV came to Harrow. She refused to master its use, and her Usher who was of course devoted to her, was conscripted to do it for her.

Despite the burdens of the work and the administration involved in being Resident Judge, she found time to care for those who did not have her happy home life.

Together, we were Trustees of the Jewish Marriage Council.

Together, we drafted a prenuptial agreement for the Office of the Chief Rabbi to be signed by couples agreeing to behave in accordance with Jewish law if they divorced, which continues to be force, though technically not yet enforceable in English law.

Together, we played a role in drafting the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 giving Judges the power to postpone Decrees Absolute until the parties had complied with their religious obligations.

In fact, after her retirement it could be said that Myrella found a second career as she could frequently be found in the corridors of the House of Lords hurriedly redrafting the Bill as it was debated in the House of Lords.

She was not just a great Judge and an inspiration to those who followed her, but she was a great human being.

By HH Dawn Freedman

About HH Dawn Freedman:

Her Honour Dawn Freedman began her legal career as a barrister before becoming the youngest person appointed as a stipendiary magistrate at the time, aged just 37. After this, she then became one of only a handful of female circuit judges and sat at Harrow Crown Court from its opening. There she developed a strong friendship with Judge Myrella Cohen QC.

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