Out of the window and up the drainpipe
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Sue James and Lady Hale
Lady Hale tells Sue James about her life in law, from university lecturer to President of the Supreme Court and beyond.
Description: Lady Hale outside LAG's new home
‘Well, it’s a big surprise, and quite an embarrassment that I am such a Venus flytrap,’ Lady Hale replies when I ask her how she feels about her iconic status. She denies that she is ‘better than chocolate cake’ (as the children who met her described her in LAG’s book Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court) but she quite likes Lord Reed’s description, at her valedictory, of her as a fine example of ‘swashbuckling womanhood’. ‘I thought that was great,’ she tells me.
We are speaking on Zoom as Lady Hale is in Richmond for the summer. I took the opportunity to ask her for an interview when we met at the opening of Lady Hale Gate in July. I would normally buy her a drink but, as that isn’t possible, I ask her what she is drinking. She tells me she is on her first Nespresso, as she had got up late for the first time in ages and had to slightly rush. When she says she didn’t think I’d mind, being as I am an old friend, it makes my heart skip, just as it did when her name appeared in the waiting room on my Zoom screen.
There is something very special about Lady Hale. It’s not just her warmth and generosity, but what she represents: fairness, equality and justice. Books are written about her, gates are named after her and her wise words greatly valued. I have known Lady Hale for more than 10 years as patron of Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre. She has been an active and supportive patron, walking with us on the London Legal Walk when she could and sponsoring us when she wasn’t able to, and much more. But our paths go back even further – although neither of us knew it until recently.
The carpeted staircase
At the Doughty Street International Women’s Day Conference in 2019, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said: ‘The route that women have to take to success is often not up the carpeted staircase but out of the window and up the drainpipe.’ I ask Lady Hale if that’s how she got to be President of the Supreme Court – by going up the drainpipe. ‘Yes, well, definitely,’ she replies. ‘The carpeted route would’ve been the commercial and property law route.’ And although she enjoys commercial law, she tells me that she has worked with the opportunities that she has been given: ‘I didn’t set out to specialise in either family or welfare law, but it is what happened.’
It was while she was teaching at the University of Manchester that she was invited to sit on the Mental Health Review Tribunal (MHRT) as a judge. Lady Hale had been asked to teach mental health law to social workers but there was no textbook. So she wrote one. The Mental Health Law handbook was my bible as I started out as a baby solicitor representing patients in MHRTs. It was many years later that I realised the author, Brenda Hoggett, was also Lady Hale. I couldn’t find my copy when she opened the Law Centre’s new office in 2018, so she said she would send me one of hers. I remind her that she still owes me a copy, which makes her laugh. A copy of the first edition of the book did end up in the hands of the presiding judge of the MHRT, though, and that is how Lady Hale started her journey up the drainpipe.
I have never seen a reason why I should not try to surmount the next pinnacle, if that’s what you want to do. Obviously, you don’t have to … but I’ve never seen a reason not to.
At Lady Hale’s valedictory, Lord Reed said that she couldn’t see a glass ceiling without breaking through it. I ask her if she agrees with him. She laughs again (I like making her laugh) before replying: ‘It’s correct to the extent that I have never seen a reason why I should not try to surmount the next pinnacle, if that’s what you want to do. Obviously, you don’t have to, it’s not compulsory. You can do what suits you, but I’ve never seen a reason not to. So, when I became a university teacher, I didn’t see a reason not to become a professor. When I became a baby judge, I didn’t see any reason not to want to become a High Court judge, etc, etc. Just because there hadn’t been many women – or any women – doing it before, that wasn’t a reason not to try.’
LAG roots
It’s lovely to hear that Lady Hale’s vision of what the law, justice and fairness are all about probably goes back to her early days of working with LAG in the 1970s. I also love that the writing of the handbook was an influential part of her journey. She explains that she would travel down from Manchester to London and teach for LAG, mainly on family law and injunctions. The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 had expanded protection remedies for women, which up until then wasn’t an area that had really been taken seriously. I ask her what that felt like. ‘It was quite an exciting time,’ she tells me. ‘Practitioners were developing remedies; they were persuading judges that they could protect the right for women to stay in the family home.’
I ask her if her direct and clear style of writing her judgments is influenced by her teaching. ‘It could be,’ she replies. ‘Trying to make complicated stuff accessible to young people does, I think, give you a certain clarity of expression. As well as 18 years of being interested in the hinterland of the law, not just what the actual legislation and case law says, but the policy background and the social context. Because with welfare law and family law, the context is very important in understanding how the law operates in reality.’ She tells me university teaching is the most wonderful job – trying to enthuse, enlighten and develop bright young people. I can see why young lawyers, in particular, are so attracted to her.
‘Manchester Mafia’
It was while she was at Manchester that Lady Hale met her ‘frog prince’, Julian Farrand. He arrived as a young professor at Manchester University in 1968 when Lady Hale was a lecturer. She tells me that it wasn’t apparent then that he would be her frog prince and assures me that, at the time, ‘nothing happened between us AT all!’ I laugh at the idea I may have stumbled on an exclusive.
Sixteen years later, they were both appointed to the Law Commission at the same time, ‘much to our surprise’. She thinks it was probably quite irritating to the other commissioner colleagues because, ‘although not romantically involved, we were good friends’. She tells me they tended to think alike about things and spent a lot of time together. So they became known as the ‘Manchester Mafia’ or the ‘Piccadilly Line’. When I tell her I think it’s a lovely story, she replies: ‘I thought you would like it. That’s why I told it to you.’
I ask her about how the frog prince achieved his title. She smiles as she answers: ‘Oh, this all started as a joke. It started with his driving style being rather like that of Toad of Toad Hall. So he gave me, I think on my birthday, a bouquet of flowers in a plant holder, quite a big thing, that was a frog. He was sure it was a toad, but I wasn’t, it was a frog. So after that, people started to think that I liked frogs. Julian started giving me frogs, other people started giving me frogs. I now have a very large collection of frogs. But basically, as we recognised our feelings for one another, it became obvious that I should call him my frog prince.’
A natural performer
As Lady Hale speaks of her career, you can tell she has always been a natural performer; from the early days of singing and dancing at Cambridge, to front and centre as both advocate and judge in the courtroom and the lecture hall. But I hadn’t known about her acting at the yearly Gray’s Inn Miscellany until now. When she tells me that she played Yoda, never having watched Star Wars (her daughter sent her YouTube clips), it makes me laugh. Later, when I tell my son, Harry (who loves Star Wars), he replies: ‘Feisty one, she is.’ Which makes me laugh again.
In 2019, she played Manet’s barmaid and I ask her if that choice was influenced by the newspaper headings around the time of the prorogation case1R (Miller) v Prime Minister; Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland [2019] UKSC 41. – the headline from the Daily Mail online read: ‘Ex-barmaid with a spider brooch who spun legal web that snared PM.’ ‘Well, that was so funny, wasn’t it?’ she says. ‘The press read that I had practised at the Manchester bar and misread it as a Manchester bar. It was quite ludicrous.’
Description: Raising money for Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre at the London Legal Walk
I ask Lady Hale what she felt were key priorities for LAG as we move into our 50th year. We had just discussed the McDonald case, the ballerina who was refused night-time care.2R (McDonald) v Kensington and Chelsea RLBC [2011] UKSC 33. Lady Hale had given the only dissenting judgment, which she tells me had ‘outraged’ her colleagues. She hadn’t meant to upset them, but she thinks she touched a raw nerve by pointing out the logic of their argument – that nappies would do – could also be applied to daytime care. This made them uncomfortable, she says. ‘It was later pointed out to me by another senior woman judge that there may have been a gender dimension to the decision: “Well, men can always pee in a bottle,” she said.’
Diversity is important. Lady Hale and I agree on that. We also agree that social care is one of the most serious welfare problems facing the population, along with the changes made to the welfare system that have resulted in increased child poverty. ‘Between social care for elderly and disabled people and the problem of child poverty, I am not quite sure which I would give priority to, I think they are both equally important,’ she says.
When Lady Hale was interviewed for the First 100 Years project, she said that children had become much more prominent in legal decision-making over the last decade and she felt she had played a large part in this. I ask her if she felt the pendulum had swung back recently, to which she carefully responds: ‘I think what one has to say is that there has been, in recent years, an increased focus on the welfare, the interests of children, and what they need to develop into healthy, successful, adults. And as with liberty, the price of children’s welfare is eternal vigilance. We must be careful to not take our eye off the ball.’
What Brenda did next …
Lady Hale’s memoir, Spider Woman, will come out in October, published by The Bodley Head. I ask her if she can reveal anything in advance of publication. She tells me that quite a lot of what we have talked about crops up in the book. She suggests that if most people have read her interviews, they probably won’t need to read the book. But I think they will. She tells me it’s about her life, the law and the legal profession – all interwoven with the most fascinating cases she has been involved with throughout her career.
I ask her what she would say to the young Brenda starting out. She seeks clarity on the question - whether I mean her personally or all Brendas. I give her the choice. She replies: ‘Well, what I tend to say, which is equally applicable to me when I was starting out in Cambridge, and to young people starting out today, is – enjoy! Because, if you enjoy, you will work hard. And if you work hard, you will be the best you can be at what you are doing. And if you can be the best you can be at what you are doing, this is likely to bring the next things to do. And seize the next thing and enjoy …’
And I have really enjoyed my morning with Lady Hale. It felt like I was having coffee with an old friend, chatting about life and the law, although she was sitting in her book-lined study, in Richmond, 250 miles away. Lady Hale has a lovely sense of fun. I feel lucky to have had this time with her and to have known her for so long. The depth of her influence on the law, and society more generally, is quite phenomenal.
Before we say goodbye, I’m interested in whether she will play a part in the House of Lords, as she is entitled to do. She won’t be drawn: ‘I haven’t decided yet whether to plunge in and try to play a proper part in the House of Lords or whether, basically, I’ve got a busy enough life without that.’ I suspect, though, following her philosophy of seizing every opportunity, that it won’t be long before we see Lady Hale in the House. I hope so. It means we will continue to benefit from the brilliance of her mind and her vision of a fairer society. It may also mean that she might pop into LAG’s new home at Lady Hale Gate now and again – for a chat, and possibly a slice of chocolate cake.
Hero in the law
Lord Bingham, undoubtedly
Favourite court
In terms of the building and everything about it, the Supreme Court
Favourite case
I think it has to be the prorogation case
Favourite drink
It depends on what time of day it is – Nespresso coffee in the day and a very good white Burgundy in the evening
Jukebox single of choice
(This made Lady Hale laugh, but we settled on favourite song) ‘Hand in Hand’ by Gloria, Dublin’s Lesbian and Gay Choir – ‘it’s uplifting and very jolly’
Favourite lawyer in tv/film/book
The titular judge of Peter Murphy’s Walden of Bermondsey – ‘full of funny, not quite credible, but credible stories of what goes on in a fictional south London Crown Court’
I asked Twitter what question they would ask Lady Hale – here are the two I chose:
Favourite Beatles track (Will Ford and Jeinsen Lam)
‘Love Me Do’ from their first album, Please Please Me – ‘The only pop music that was really important in my life was the Beatles. It came out in 1963, just as I was leaving school and preparing to go to university, and I spent it dancing to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Their later songs were more profound but not good to dance to.’
What is the scandal that we can call Lady Hale Gate? (Simon Mullings)
‘Well, if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t tell you.’
Photos: Sue James
1     R (Miller) v Prime Minister; Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland [2019] UKSC 41»
2     R (McDonald) v Kensington and Chelsea RLBC [2011] UKSC 33»

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James - author
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...