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13 October 2021

“I didn’t set out to be any kind of icon”: Brenda Hale on becoming an anti-Brexit hero

The Supreme Court justice discusses her spider brooch, women's equality and why the law is not a political statement.

By Rachel Cunliffe

“It started with a spider,” says Baroness Hale  of Richmond, the former president of the Supreme Court, of her love of brooches.  “A different spider, but they were always creatures. And I have never really given much thought to what creature happened to be adorning my lapel.”

Lady Hale (Brenda, to her friends), 76, might not have thought hard about what brooch she wore  when she delivered the unanimous Supreme Court judgment on 24 September 2019 that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament had been unlawful. But whether she had planned it or not, that sparkly spider became emblematic of the anti-Brexit cause. Within hours, conspiracy theories were spreading about the coded criticism of Johnson’s “web of lies” that the arachnid might convey. The brooch soon had its own Twitter account, and T-shirts bearing the spider symbol were sold (with some of the proceeds going to the homeless charity Shelter). Hale denies any secret messaging, but has finally lent into the image; her autobiography was published earlier this month under the title Spider Woman.

On the day we spoke, it was a butterfly (“or possibly a moth”) brightening Hale’s shoulder. From her bookcase-stacked home in Richmond, Yorkshire, she told me over Zoom how her husband started buying her brooches when she had to wear dark suits for her work in the Family Division of the High Court. “It was just sheer decoration, lifting the spirits, being a little bit different – actually, quite a lot being a little bit different,” she  said conspiratorially.

That motif – the quirky and unexpected juxtaposed with the austere and traditional – seems strangely fitting. In a way, Hale is the quintessential establishment figure: a Cambridge-educated lawyer and academic who sits in the House of Lords and handed down rulings from the highest court in the land. Pro-Brexit critics of the prorogation verdict certainly painted her that way: as an out-of-touch elitist defying the Prime Minister’s attempt to deliver the democratic will of the people (though they also referred to her dismissively as an “ex-barmaid”). There was no doubting her sense of authority when she scolded me for taking notes in our interview, reminding me I’m recording so should instead concentrate on what she’s saying. Her parents were both teachers, and it shows.

[See also: “We have to answer the questions Brexit raised”: Michel Barnier on the EU and why he wants to lead France]

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But there’s a more rebellious side of Hale that comes through in her book and our conversation: a Yorkshire grammar school girl breaking down barriers, starting at Cambridge just 15 years after the university began awarding degrees to women, then as a barrister (“when I went into the law, under 5 per cent of practising lawyers were women”), then as the first female Law Lord, the first female Supreme Court Justice, and the first female president of the Supreme Court.

In the valedictory ceremony to mark her retirement from the Supreme Court, Hale was described as “a feminist, frank and fearless”. She told me her passion for championing women’s equality, both within her profession and through applying the law, has run “the whole way through my career. I’m not sure I would call it fierce, but other people might. Fervent, perhaps.” She can reel off the legal advances seen in her lifetime – from domestic violence legislation to equal pay to the availability of contraception – but is impatient at the slow rate of change elsewhere, particularly with regard to judicial diversity.

“The presence of a woman – or more than one woman – around the table at lunch or wherever people are having their sandwiches enables a different perspective, a different experience to be brought to the experiences which come before the court,” she said. Diversity is vital not only because the law should embody basic values of justice, fairness and equality, she argued, but because more diverse groups make better decisions. The continued lack of women and people of colour in senior legal ranks also undermines, in her view, “the democratic legitimacy of the justice system. It ought to be perceived by the public that it is there for them, it’s there to serve their interests, and not a small elite group laying down the law for the rest of us. People should see the courts as their courts, the people’s courts.”

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“Elite” for Hale is a complex word, conveying the best and the worst of the justice system: its focus on intellectual excellence, and its self-perpetuating resistance to inclusivity. As such, while there are some legal traditions she endorses (“obviously, doing things properly and fairly and justly, that’s pretty important”), she breaks with the lawyer consensus by revealing she’d happily do away with others. “I’d dance a jig of delight if wigs were entirely dispensed with,” she said, laughing. “I don’t think it really does much of a service to the law to have its practitioners dressing up in 18th-century wigs, quite apart from the fact that it makes them all look like old men.”

This is a playful side to Hale that few who watched her solemnly deliver the prorogation decision would expect. Unexpected, too, is her willingness to admit to impostor syndrome: her book opens with a list of moments when she felt like she didn’t belong, from her first day at a new school to her work as the youngest person and first woman appointed to the Law Commission, wondering, “Can I cope?”

[See also: “Women are in a bigger fight than the suffragettes”: Helen Joyce on the trans debate]

That jars with the celebrity status she now enjoys; gushing comparisons have been made to the US Supreme Court Justice and women’s rights pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But while Hale is proud to identify as a feminist, she also described herself as “pragmatic” and resisted my suggestion that there is something idealistic about the law. And though she has collaborated on a rhyming children’s book about her journey to judicial stardom, when asked about being a role model for young girls her answer was insistent:  “I didn’t set out to be any kind of icon.”

Despite everything she’s achieved, she still gives the impression of being slightly surprised at how her life has unfolded. Certainly, she feels unsettled to have inadvertently become a hero of the Remain cause thanks to a ruling that was – as far as she and her fellow justices were concerned – purely about upholding a legal principle, not making a political statement. “It’s very uncomfortable,” she said.

I asked how she feels about attacks on the judicial system from politicians and pundits, with rhetoric about “activist judges” and ministers bidding to curtail the courts’ ability to hold government bodies to account (through the Judicial Review and Courts Bill). Suddenly, any sense of playfulness or uncertainty was gone; the schoolmistress tone came back and I got told off again. “I’m not going to make any comment or criticism of any politician including the current government, so please do not take anything I say as amounting to that,” she said sternly.

But for those who read headlines accusing judges of being “enemies of the people” and “declaring war on democracy”, she had this message: “When judges assess the lawfulness of what a public authority has done, they are usually assessing it in the light of what parliament has decided, what parliament has legislated for. So we are the servants of the legislation, and thus supporting democracy.”

That sums up the contradictions of Lady Hale: an unlikely people’s champion who – intentionally or not – schooled the Prime Minister on the workings of democracy. She has spent her career simultaneously defending and rebelling against the established order, and her explanation of an obscure point of law led her to be thrust into the limelight. Whatever role you try to cast her in, there’s always a sparkly butterfly reminding you it doesn’t quite fit. Or possibly a moth.

This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm