The Trinity Praeses Elit Award was awarded to Baroness Brenda Hale by TCD Law Society on 11 March. Baroness Hale made history when she was appointed to the House of Lords in 2004, becoming the first female to be appointed. She is currently Deputy president of the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom.
She opened with an expression of gratitude to Law Soc for inviting her to speak, and also expressed her “special affection” for Ireland, as she now has two Irish grandchildren.
Hale kept the crowd entertained with light humour but also emphasised how passionate she is about the need for ‘greater diversity’ in the professionals that create and manage the legal system.
Hale took an unusual path to the judiciary and said she had not planned on becoming a barrister. She completed her undergraduate degree in law at Cambridge before going on to become an academic at Manchester University.
Interestingly, she said that she initially chose academia because she wished to have a family, perhaps a telling insight into the lack of women in the judiciary as they may feel it is a lifestyle incompatible with having a family.
It was at Manchester that she wrote a book on mental health law, and was then appointed as a chair for Mental Health Review Panels in the UK. She also began to edit a social welfare journal.
Hale said that all of this academic work led to her public position as a judge. She commented that academia is good training for the judiciary, as “making up your mind” is an important aspect of both roles.
In her work, Hale has shaped many laws and she highlighted the real impact that her work has on the everyday lives of thousands of people.
She views her work as a privilege, and stated that it is “a wonderful feeling to be part of the creative process.”
It has been 12 years since Hale’s appointment as a High Court Judge, and in that time there has been 15 more appointments, not one of them of a woman. Hale claimed that this is a travesty, and joked “what am I doing wrong?”
She asked also why Ireland in fact fares better than the UK in this regard, having more female judges, even though the Irish and UK legal systems are very similar. Hale has long been a critic of the homogeneity of judges in the UK, who tend to be from similar socio-economic and educational backgrounds as well as being predominantly male.
She questioned the legitimacy of the legal system as “such huge issues” are being decided upon by a narrow section of society. “Our present situation is terrible,” she stated.
She “does her best to promote greater diversity,” but she remarked that she does not believe that quotas are the best solution, as the validity of the appointment may be called into question. Instead, setting targets may help, though she said that she is wary of the fact that very good female candidates may be “put off” the judiciary if they believe their appointment is only due to the need for greater diversity. She insisted that women should not be put off by this belief, although she has a “sneaking suspicion” that is why she was appointed, but she decided that she had better “give it a go.”
Baroness Hale offered insights for all those present into the history and current developments of the legal system in the UK, as well as stimulating reflection on the diversity of the Irish legal system, and the place of women in legal systems around the world.