‘A symbol of swashbuckling womanhood’: top lawyers pay tribute to retiring Lady Hale

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By CJ McKinney on

Four reasons everyone’s going to miss Supreme Court chief

Today marked the swansong for the Beyoncé of the legal profession, as the great and the good gathered to pay tribute to the first woman to sit on the country’s top court.

Lady Hale, who was appointed as a law lord in 2004, transferred to the new Supreme Court in 2009 and became its president in 2017, retires next month. Here’s four themes from what people said about Hale’s life and legacy at this morning’s valedictory ceremony.

1. She’s an inspiration and a role model

Lord Reed, the incoming president, reeled off a list of Hale’s achievements, which even before becoming a full-time judge included an impressive academic record at the University of Manchester and being the youngest ever and first female law commissioner. “Clearly”, said Reed, “she is a woman who cannot see a glass ceiling without breaking through it”.

“All these achievements, and the personality that lies behind them, have made Brenda an inspiration to women and especially to women lawyers”, Reed said, adding that her now famous spider brooch “has become a symbol of swashbuckling womanhood”.

Hale’s valedictory ceremony at the Supreme Court earlier today.

True that: the three speakers who followed Reed were all wearing spider pins or brooches of their own. But it’s not her sense of style that makes Hale such an inspiration. Dinah Rose QC said that Hale had been a “singlehanded antidote to the ubiquitous male lens through which the law has traditionally been viewed — and we women of the bar have cheered you on”.

Former Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said that Hale had “inspired countless women to believe that no part of the profession is beyond their reach”, telling the retiring president that “you have been the inspiration for every step of my own career”.

Blacklaws also recounted Hale’s kindness behind the scenes, noting that she “regularly get requests for work experience, mainly from young girls”. While formal shadowing isn’t allowed, Hale invites as many as possible to come and spent the day with her at the Supreme Court anyway.

Richard Atkins QC noted that Hale had gone the extra mile in supporting Gray’s Inn, where she’s inevitably to be found “at the centre of any thronging mass of students”. Last year, in typical unpretentious style, Hale dressed up as Yoda at the Inn’s annual Christmas Miscellany.

2. Even to people who aren’t lawyers

Atkins, chair of the bar of England and Wales, said that Hale had “dynamited her way into the public’s consciousness” during the prorogation case. The live stream of the arguments over Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament was viewed almost 30 million times.

“The manner in which those proceedings were conducted and the manner in which they were determined”, Rose said, “was a personal triumph for you as well a testament to the quality of this court”. The Blackstone Chambers barrister added that:

“The contrast between the courteous, measured and expert debate that took place here in that case, and the tone and content of so much of our public discourse over recent months and years, was dramatic — and was not lost on the many viewers.”

Blacklaws said that the “Brenda agenda” had “extended far beyond our profession”, while Atkins compared her fame to celebrities like Cilla Black, Cher, and (of course) Beyoncé. Hale has often been dubbed “the Beyoncé of the legal profession” after the nickname was popularised by Legal Cheek, but Atkins joked that he for one thinks of Beyoncé as the Brenda of the musical world.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

But Reed pointed out that one rumour that took hold during the progration case was untrue: “she is not the first barmaid to have become president of the Supreme Court. Brenda’s statement that early in her career she worked at the bar in Manchester was transformed by the media into the more picturesque idea that she worked in a bar in Manchester”.

3. She’s good at the whole law thing

Reed pointed out that what made his departing colleague great wasn’t her gender — it was her abilities as a judge. Praising her “clarity of thought and expression”, he said that Hale had “the rare ability to write judgments which are clear, direct and concise: something which has made her particularly popular with university students”. Preach.

Rose said that even while still in the House of Lords, Hale had delivered some “seminal” judgments in the early years of the Human Rights Act. The silk singled out the 2004 decision in Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza, in which Hale had “encapsulated, in a single sentence, the critical role of fundamental rights for the protection of minorities”. Hale had written in that case:

“Democracy values everyone equally, even if the majority does not”.

4. She’s still got some wisdom to dispense

Hale herself made a few parting remarks, fondly recalling the accusations thrown at her over the years of being “the most ideological, politically correct judge ever to have been appointed” and a “hardline feminist”.

“Those same commentators”, Hale joked, “didn’t notice later when I defended the institution of marriage — against the assaults of my male colleagues — in Radmacher v Granatino“.

The retiring pres — who will soon join UCL as an honorary professor — also pointed the audience towards a new Supreme Court artwork (pictured below) commemorating women in the law, saying it would “go some small way to counterbalance the weight of all those dead white men we are obliged — but happy — to continue to commemorate”.

The new artwork depicts Lady Hale, Rose Heilbron (the first part-time judge), Cornelia Sorabji (the first woman to ever sit the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University), and an image representing a female lawyer of the future.

And she struck a blow for the independence of the judiciary, saying of her fellow justices: “We do not know one another’s political opinions — although occasionally we may have a good guess – and long may that remain so. Judges have not been appointed for party political reasons in this country since at least the second world war. We do not want to turn into the Supreme Court of the United States – whether in powers or in process of appointment”.

Hale was joined in court by her husband Julian Farrand, who she touchingly referred to as her “frog prince”, as well as her daughter, stepchildren and grandchildren. She signed off by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

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