Lady Hale—a judge of immense integrity

The former president of the Supreme Court regarded the law as something connected to people’s everyday lives

November 02, 2021
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Spider Woman: A Life
Lady Hale
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It isn’t often that a judicial figure breaks out of the legal world and into public consciousness, but Brenda Hale has emphatically done so. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament in 2019 put its president in the spotlight: she won plaudits in progressive quarters and sparked concerns about judicial overreach in others. Having retired in 2020, she has now written a fascinating memoir weaving together personal and professional reflections.

We start in leafy Richmond, North Yorkshire. Hale remembers her childhood as idyllic until her father died when she was 13. We gallop through to Girton in Cambridge—then a women’s college—and the bar exams. There was a successful stint in academia and a period masterminding legal reform as a law commissioner, before her journey to the top of the judicial hierarchy.

Not all the legal cases described here are as blockbuster as the prorogation one but they will have felt just as important to the parties concerned. Hale specialised as a family judge and recounts fraught cases involving mental capacity and cross-border adoption where the right answer was almost impossible to determine. She sought to bring a new perspective to a male-dominated judiciary—and carried over the reforming approach when she joined the top court. Her eventual appointment as president was a landmark for gender equality.

More conservative critics viewed the judgments as encroaching on political decision-making, and saw in her eye-catching brooches—most famously the spider one that gives this book its title—a quest for personal celebrity. But what this book makes clear is that, agree or disagree with her, Hale was a judge of immense integrity, who understood the rule of law not as something cold and remote but as having a connection to people’s everyday lives.

Retirement has been difficult, owing to Covid-19 and the sudden death of her second husband, Julian. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, under its new president Robert Reed, has taken a decidedly conservative turn, with controversial decisions in the government’s favour. Now that she’s left the stage, Hale’s contribution is becoming even clearer.