Brenda Hale, the president of the UK’s Supreme Court, demonstrated a combination of steely determination and a warm demeanour when she announced on Tuesday morning that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful. But that’s to be expected.
Lady Hale manages to combine a grandmotherly kindness with a whip-smart mind – and, as I learned when I interviewed her in late 2017 after she assumed the role of most powerful woman in the most powerful court in the land, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
The 74-year-old was born at her mother’s parents’ home in Leeds, but was brought up in the now-poverty-stricken seaside town of Redcar for the first few years of her life – a result of her father’s position as a teacher at a local school. She moved to Richmond, in Yorkshire, at the age of three when her father took up a job as headmaster of Scorton Grammar School. Though she sits in court in London, Lady Hale made a home in Yorkshire and still visits, poring over cases at a desk in her study, while looking out at the wildlife outside her window. She still revels in the train journey up the East Coast mainline away from London to her home in Richmond, talking of a “lightening of the heart as we pull out of Kings Cross”. This feeling is only multiplied when she changes trains at Darlington. “Every step on that journey makes me feel happier,” she said.
Hale was the first pupil from Richmond High School for Girls to go to Cambridge, where she read law. Today, she is the woman who has just helped reshape our country’s unwritten constitution, yet she took up law only because the headmistress at her school said she didn’t have the mental aptitude to study history. Around the same time that Hale started her university degree, the first full-time female judge had just been appointed to court. “It was a world in which women were only beginning to make their way,” she told me.
However, at university things were still biased in favour of men. She was one of six women in her cohort at Cambridge, compared to 110 men. She had to fight to gain equality, then quickly realised she was highly skilled at law. What was a second-best choice of studies became an obsession. “Law has everything,” she told me. “It’s got intellectual interest, it’s got rigour, it’s got the capacity to develop and change and be made better – and it’s a hugely important feature of everybody’s lives.”
Her hard-headedness has won her opponents – a former colleague once called her “obstreperous” – but as her judgment shows, she hides her firm fist in a silk glove. Her famed brooches are an example of that: disavowing people of her stature and seriousness, they also offer a hint at the determination within. It’s little surprise that she chose a spider brooch to wear on such a momentous day.
When she became president of the Supreme Court, she tasked herself with making the law more accessible. But she quibbled with me saying she had to make it more relevant. “We can’t make it more relevant,” she said. “It is relevant.” This was just one of many times where Hale showed that her bite is stronger than her bark: she firmly corrected my misplaced language, but did so in a kindly way.
Even back in 2017, she was eager to stress the impartiality of the Supreme Court. Setting aside personal opinions when sitting on cases is difficult, but necessary. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions, but you know what their place is,” she told me. In the court’s unanimous decision, Lady Hale was clear that the Prime Minister had suspended parliament unlawfully – but her judgment carefully sidestepped the question of whether Boris Johnson had lied to the Queen, which would be an immediate case for resigning.
Lady Hale’s predecessor, Lord Neuberger, worried that Brexit would drag the legislature into the world of politics and diplomacy. He was concerned that would set a dangerous precedent – one that those opposed to the decision are raising now. Lady Hale was quick to respond curtly, shutting down any notion of that. “Well, we don’t want to enter politics or diplomacy,” she said.
Though she may not want the court to enter either world, the decision she has made means it cannot avoid doing so. In the short term, the Supreme Court may just have signed the death warrant on Boris Johnson’s premiership. In the long term, it has changed the country.