The new president of the UK's Supreme Court is not afraid to disrupt the legal establishment she now leads. Her feminism could shake up not just the young court, but the countryby Afua Hirsch / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Brenda Hale is telling a story. “Would you like to know what really happened?”, she asks, leaning towards me across a low coffee table, the wall behind us lined with law reports bound in red and burned orange. There’s something deliciously conspiratorial about the way the President of the Supreme Court asks this question, the promise of something juicy to come.
The story concerns an incident when Hale, then a High Court judge, was staying in official judges’ lodgings, while on the circuit outside London. “There were only six women High Court judges [out of a total of around 70], and they hadn’t really worked out what do to do with a judge who happens to be a woman,” she explains. The lodgings—and the entertainment—were run “very much along the lines of upper middle-class households between the wars.”
Female judges were thus expected to retire to a separate room after dinner, leaving the other judges uninterrupted with their port and male conversation. Hale observed the rule for some time with great annoyance. “When you first join something, you don’t make waves straight away,” she explains. “I went along with it in a very grumpy way! Which is the worst of all possible worlds.”
But one day, a younger female barrister was present. “The junior of the circuit was among the guests for dinner, and I thought, this bright young woman barrister should not be excluded,” she says. “It was because of her that I plucked up courage [to say] we are not leaving.” But there is a twist. Several years later, Hale met the same barrister again and she remembered the incident very differently. “Here was I telling her to do something, which she thought might not endear her to the male judges present. I had put her in a difficult situation.”
But then, by simple dint of being the only woman on her path to the top, Hale has often enough put herself in tricky situations too. It has, some close to her say, taken its toll. “She is a totally fascinating woman, but I found it difficult to work with her,” said one former colleague—who didn’t want to be named—of her time working with Hale. “You have to be obstreperous as a woman to get there, to break that glass ceiling. It’s painful, it leaves you