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The Supreme Court: Under new management

The Supreme Court: Under new management


Will the appointment of Lady Hale encourage the legal profession to modernise, wonders Julian Hawkhead

From 2 October the Supreme Court will be under new management as Baroness Hale of Richmond assumes the role of president, following the retirement of her (actually slightly younger) colleague, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury.

The appointment is significant for one very simple reason: Lady Hale will be the first female president.

Lady Hale’s career path took her from academia into law reform before she moved to the Bar and eventually judicial office. She was the first woman and also the youngest person ever to be appointed to the Law Commission; the second to be appointed to the Court of Appeal (after Baroness Butler-Sloss); and the first woman to be appointed to the House of Lords and, subsequently, the Supreme Court. That’s an inspirational tally of firsts – all forged within a legal establishment that has been long associated with tradition and gender discrimination. You could not ask for a clearer demonstration that, with determination, hard work, and talent anyone can succeed in the legal profession, whatever their background.

Lady Hale has been an advocate of diversity among the senior judiciary throughout her career. In recent years she has criticised the popularity of the male-only Garrick Club among her colleagues and declared that the lack of female justices in the Supreme Court was something of which it should be ashamed. All 13 judges appointed to the House of Lords and later the Supreme Court since 2004 have been white men, she noted in a speech at Birmingham University in 2015. Most had attended fee-paying schools before going on to Oxford or Cambridge. Twelve of the 13 were former barristers.

But finally, it seems, times are changing. When she assumes the mantle of president, Lady Hale will finally be joined by another woman in Britain’s highest court: veteran family law judge Lady Justice Black will become a justice on the same day, news singled out for comment by Lady Justice Hale when her appointment was announced.

“While I of course look forward to working alongside all my colleagues, it is a particular pleasure for me to be taking up the post at the same time as we welcome only the second ever woman to sit on the UK’s top appeal court.”

Lady Hale’s background is in family law, an area which requires as much emotional intelligence and empathy as it requires academic ability and legal skills: the ability not to only know the legal answer to a situation but also to have an insight into why an individual may be behaving in a certain way and seeking certain outcomes regarding, for example, their relationship, financial resources, or children.

Lady Hale has expressed a desire to see the legal profession modernise itself. She would like to see barristers without their wigs in court, a tradition that goes back several hundred years. Maybe it’s not only our laws that need to change to reflect the values of contemporary society, but the way we as lawyers behave as well.

The need for the legal profession to modernise the way we practise is often discussed. How this inspiring new leader of the Supreme Court exercises her influence in the interpretation and shaping of our laws will be an interesting chapter in the story of 21st-century law, and I for one am looking forward to it. 

Julian Hawkhead is senior partner at Stowe Family Law