Baroness Hale visits the Cambridge Union

Catherine Lally 24 October 2017

Baroness Hale's address to a packed room at the Union on Friday night was understandably popular – as the first woman to be appointed as President of the Supreme Court (the UK's most senior judge), and a champion of diversity in the judiciary and public life generally, she has had a high-profile and varied career. Hale was eloquent and witty, touching on subjects ranging from press treatment of the judiciary, to why representation matters in terms of the legitimacy of Supreme Court rulings. 

Hale began by discussing what she wishes she had known as an undergraduate at Cambridge. She studied law at Girton College, graduating in 1966. She wishes she had understood how unfair it was that the opportunities she received were so often out of reach for people who did not fit the typical Cambridge mould. She had been the first girl from her school in Yorkshire to study law, and first to go to Cambridge – at a time when there were nine times as many males than females at the University. However, she also felt that at Cambridge she learnt ambition; if so many privileged young men took passing the bar for granted, she could do it too. While she had received many of her posts through a 'tap on the shoulder', which was the case until 2005, she saw the new system of having a Judicial Appointments Commission as much more transparent and useful in improving diversity, albeit slowly. 

Rather than following the typical career path of a Supreme Court judge, Hale specialised in family law and worked as an academic at Manchester University, then as a public servant. She emphasised how exceptional her appointment had been, as the first woman in the British Supreme Court until a month ago (despite being its longest-serving justice), and the only non-privately-educated justice until three years ago. Hale explained why judicial bodies should better represent all segments of British society. If the laws affecting everyone are to be legitimate, they should not be decided solely by a narrow pool of 'socioeconomic elites'. She acknowledged the need to address gender imbalances in the judiciary, as well as a lack of ethnic and cultural diversity. Hale sees strength in collectivism: people from all kinds of backgrounds are needed, because each person will have their experiences of how life has treated them inform their judging. At one point she said, 'I am only as powerful as I can persuade others of my point of view.' This was exemplified by the Yemshaw v LB Hounslow case in 2011, in which a woman left the family home and applied to the council as homeless, because of the emotionally and financially abusive treatment she had received from her husband. Since she had not been assaulted, her case had been dismissed by the council and Courts of Appeal. However, it was brought to the Supreme Court and Hale expanded the definition of violence to go beyond physical assault to threatening, intimidating and controlling behaviour. Hale felt that as a woman, she had an implicit understanding of the insidious nature of emotional violence, and how it can make staying in a toxic environment impossible. This differed to the understanding of her male colleagues, and had allowed her to make the debate fairer. 

Brexit was a common question topic throughout the night. Hale said it would be inappropriate to comment on what she perceived as its relative advantages and disadvantages. However, she did comment on the press coverage of the Miller Case, when the Supreme Court ruled 8-3 that Members of Parliament had the right to vote on triggering Article 50. Hale said she found the attacks on the Lord Chief Justice disturbing and irresponsible, with it running contrary to the idea of an independent, impartial British judiciary. Hale also criticised the Daily Mail for branding the three judges who decided the Miller case "enemies of the people," alongside profiles of their personal lives and the price of their family homes. Hale answered a wide range of questions, revealing that she feels Northern Ireland's abortion law, and whether it defies basic human rights, is the most important legal issue currently facing the Supreme Court. 

While a show of hands revealed the audience to be split between law and non-law students, the range of Hale's speech went beyond a discussion of her many legal cases, and was illuminating and insightful for all those lucky enough to listen.