Baroness Hale talks Cambridge, the judiciary and diversity
“Go for it girl!”
Baroness Hale, who spoke at The Cambridge Union last Friday, is the current president of The Supreme Court. She is the only woman to have ever held this position and the first to be appointed as a Justice there. However, this is not the first of her firsts: she was the first girl from her local girls' high school both to study Law and to go to Cambridge, and, neatly, she also gained a starred first in her studies at Cambridge. It is hard to deny that she is a true trailblazer.
At the beginning of her speech Hale highlighted that being a member of a minority of female judges is not the first time she has experienced a gender imbalance; when she studied at Girton College, there were 9 times as many places for boys as there were girls. She also reminded the audience that Cambridge started granting degrees to women just 15 years before she attended. It had previously offered women the rather unfortunately named, as Hale comically pointed out, BA (Tit).
These facts were harrowing and particularly poignant in light of David Lammy's recent criticisms regarding the lack of diversity at Oxbridge. However, Hale successfully preserved the mood in The Union, joking that the female Cantabs of her time enjoyed “the best sex ratio [they had] ever had in [their] lives.” Additionally, in reference to the fact that despite there being 15 appointments to the Supreme Court since hers, bur only this month was another female selected, Hale questioned, “What was I doing wrong?!” to put them off other women. Each comment was met with a round of raucous laughter.
Hale has a keen wit which makes her inherently likeable, which was much appreciated by The Union audience, and is also a champion of diversity which, in her words, the “lack of…matters so much.” She described the judiciary’s lack of female membership as “shocking, absolutely shocking” and a "waste of talent." She then went on to explain how, in her opinion, the fact that judges are largely drawn from a “very narrow section of society” is wrong since they are “dictating to the whole population” on issues which “affect a large number of people”: something made particularly clear during the recent Miller (Brexit) case. Hale has an astute social conscience and her direct approach in pointing out these issues was refreshing.
Despite a keen awareness of its issues, her faith in our judicial system is undeniable. This is reassuring to hear, particularly as a Law student, as I am aware of it’s extremely important role in our Constitution both in protecting the rights of individuals and as an accountability mechanism. Hale stated how she “truly believes” that the Justices together produce “something [that is] stronger than a sum of its parts.” When asked if judges are more favourable towards those with backgrounds and characters similar to theirs, Hale's laughter was evidence enough of her complete denial of this. Throughout her speech she was characterised by similar good humour.
Hale went on to describe how the judiciary recently adopted a definition of violence that “included many different ways of [a person] exerting [their] influence over someone else” rather than a narrow one based on a direct threat of force, following her recommendations. The pride she took in this demonstrated both her strong sense of responsibility and appreciation of the implications of Supreme Court's decisions on the public at large and, in particular, their social wellbeing.
Despite her title and the huge importance of her job, Hale remains very grounded. She described, with a striking degree of openness, how her choice to pursue a career in academia rather than at the common law Bar was out of a desire for a family life. When asked about how women should juggle their careers with family, she described, appreciating the everyday realities of life, how she believed that a "supportive partner" was "absolutely crucial". However, she was most keen that women should not limit themselves based on such factors. This was in keeping with how she had described earlier in her speech that Cambridge had taught her "ambition". She finished her answer to the question with the poignant encouragement, "Go for it girl!". This undoubtedly embraces her whole ethos.
Hale did not shy away from controversial issues in her speech but delivered her take on them in a very direct and even emotive manner. She charmed the audience and I am sure that most were inspired by her words.