The Red Robes

Published 23rd October 2019

These striking red robes, recently unearthed by the Royal Courts of Justice, provide a thread connecting decades of groundbreaking women in law, from the past to the present day.

The robes began their life in 1965 when Mrs Justice Elizabeth Lane reached the historic milestone of becoming the first woman High Court judge. This was only three years after she became the first woman County Court judge.

The bright scarlet robes were made specifically for her, thus starting out their life at a truly significant moment for gender equality in the legal world. The robes are the traditional dress of High Court judges presiding over criminal cases and earn those who wear them the nickname of ‘red judges’. For the first time, a woman would be known by that name.

Following Elizabeth Lane’s retirement in 1979, the robes were passed to Margaret Booth, appointed in that year as High Court Judge. She was just the third woman to hold that title by then, despite 14 years passing since Elizabeth Lane’s appointment, and was assigned to the Family Division. Mrs Justice Booth was also known for being the first woman Bencher at Middle Temple.

Margaret Booth made good use of her expertise in family law when she stepped into the role as head of the National Family and Parenting Institute following her retirement from the bench. There, she called for changes to divorce law, particularly in relation to custody settlements over children.

After Margaret Booth’s retirement, the robes soon found their way onto the shoulders of one Mrs Justice Hale, appointed judge in the Family Division of the High Court in 1994. This made her the first High Court Judge to have her prior career in academia.

She left the High Court in 1999 in order to become the second woman Court of Appeal Judge. Following this, her groundbreaking career has led her to become the first female Law Lord and, then, the first woman on the Supreme Court. She currently sits, of course, as the first woman President of the Supreme Court.

Following Lady Hale’s departure from the High Court bench, the robes were passed on to Mrs Justice Jill Black, appointed to the court in 1999. This followed a varied career at the bar across civil and criminal practise, with an eventual specialisation in family law. Lady Black then went on to sit at the Court of Appeal before becoming the second woman on the Supreme Court, where she joined a fellow wearer of the robes, Lady Hale.

Thus, when the Supreme Court in 2018 saw its historic first female majority panel, featuring Lady Hale, Lady Black and Lady Arden, two of the three women had been wearers of these same robes.

It is therefore fitting on this, the centenary year of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, that the red robes worn by some of the most distinguished women trailblazers in the profession, from the first woman High Court judge to the first woman President of the Supreme Court, are to be presented in a display case for all to see at the Royal Courts of Justice. Do make sure you give them a visit.

Written by Ashley Van De Casteele, Project Coordinator for First 100 Years

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