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The Spider Woman bites back

Lady Hale, former president of the Supreme Court, remains as calm and steadfast as ever. But, as her much-praised book indicates, we haven't heard the last of her measured voice.

Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Photo: Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.

On a blank page at the start of Baroness Hale’s autobiography are the words “Omnia feminae aequissimae” which means all women are very calm. My own empirical evidence makes me doubt this, but Brenda Hale herself is almost uncannily calm.

She has been through enough to disturb most people’s serenity. The first woman to be a law lord, the first woman to be Britain’s most senior judge when she became president of the Supreme Court (which replaced the law lords), she became Britain’s most vilified judge when the the Justices quashed Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament in 2019.

By then the Daily Mail was already on her case. In 1995, as one of Britain’s Law Commissioners, who propose law reform, she promoted a bill on domestic violence and occupation of the family home. The paper trotted out all the old ranters: the Catholic polemicist William Oddie (“this blow to marriage”); John Torode (“Twice-married feminist behind radical new laws”); Geoffrey Levy, who was later to write the Mail’s vicious attack on Ed Miliband’s late father, Professor Ralph Miliband.

The Mail claimed, falsely, that she was against marriage. Mr Levy tried unsuccessfully to get Hale’s second husband’s first wife to say something unpleasant about her, and wrote that Hale was a feminist. He meant it as an insult, but Hale embraces it.

It’s the one -ism she owns up to, and she is known among lawyers for holding the ladder she climbed in place so that other women can ascend it. Many young women barristers see her as a role model and a champion. One of these, former barrister Afua Hirsch, has turned her into the heroine of a children’s book, Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court.

“My main worry” she told me in her deliberate way, was “the effect that [the Mail’s attacks on her] might have on the law reform projects which I had promoted and they were attacking. I was cross that they did not seem to understand what we were proposing and that it was not as they portrayed. But it was surely a small thing compared with what many people in public life now have to put up with from social media.”

Hale was firmly in favour of abolishing blasphemy laws, and took a majority of the Law Commission with her. It didn’t happen, but the idea stayed around and was finally enacted in 2008, after which she attended, she writes, “a very jolly ‘bye bye blasphemy’ party held by the National Secular Society.”

A year or two after that, I found myself seated next to her at a National Secular Society lunch, and said I had not realised she was a fellow atheist. Not at all, she told me. She was, she said, a practising Christian, a devout member of the Church of England. 

She explains now that there is a role for values in law-making and policy-making, “and many of our most cherished values are Judeo-Christian ones, the Church of England plays an important role at certain moments in our national life”.

She adds: “Think of Royal weddings and the coronation but religion should not intrude into secular life, for example in prayers before council meetings. We are a society of many faiths and none and no one should feel excluded because they don’t belong.”

When, in 2016, the divisional court ruled that Boris Johnson’s government needed the consent of parliament to give notice of Brexit, the Mail’s front page consisted of pictures of the three judges with the banner headline “Enemies of the people” – a phrase which until then was best known as the description Stalin’s henchmen used of Trotsky’s followers.

Hale was not one of the three judges, but she expected justice secretary Liz Truss instantly to defend them, and was shocked when the minister failed to do so. In her autobiography she writes that it was Ms Truss’s duty to say:

“We have a free press in this country, and you are free to write and publish what you like. But it is my duty, as the member of the government sworn to defend the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, to tell you that you are wrong. These are not enemies of the people but senior members of the judiciary deciding the case in accordance with the law…”

I asked her if she was contemptuous of Truss and fearful now of Johnson’s dictatorial tendency. She replied: “The rule of law protected by an independent judiciary is one of the two pillars of our constitution, alongside the sovereignty of Parliament. I fervently hope that all our politicians recognise this, alongside the importance of sticking to the rules.”

I didn’t ask a follow-up. When Hale has finished speaking, she has finished speaking.

Inevitably the issue ended up in the Supreme Court, which upheld the divisional court ruling. Three years later, in 2019, the supreme court had an even more loaded case to decide, and by then Hale was its president.

Boris Johnson wanted to prorogue Parliament, meaning that neither House could meet, debate, pass legislation, ask questions of ministers, or anything else. It would prevent parliamentary scrutiny of any Brexit deal.

Eleven of the 12 judges sat to ensure against a deadlock, and so that no one could say a different panel would have produced a different result. The Justices decided unanimously against Johnson. “No one thought she would be able to get a unanimous verdict,” a top QC tells me. “We all thought there would be two or three dissenters. It was a real achievement.” 

It fell to the president to declare the verdict, and that day she selected one of several brooches her husband had given her. Her hands hovered over the butterfly, the bee, the frog, but eventually alighted on the spider.

It was to become iconic. Typically, instead of fuming at the triviality of the media obsession with her brooch, she embraced it, and as made it the title of her autobiography: Spider Woman, which was named among the Books of 2021 by both the New Statesman and Times.

This lucid, human book, filled with learning lightly worn, tells how Hale was born in 1945 in the Yorkshire village of Scorton, close to the medieval town of Richmond where she now lives. Her father, mother and grandfather were all headteachers, and she was, in Boris Johnson’s philistine phrase which she repeats with scorn, a girly swot, who passed the 11+, went to grammar school, and won an exhibition to Cambridge.

Despite this, she dislikes the selective grammar school system. “I benefitted enormously from the academic education I received as a result of the 11+” she tells me. “But the segregation into those who were expected to have high aspirations and those who were not was indefensible, especially when it varied so much from place to place and between boys and girls. Good comprehensive education ought to be the solution, but that is not easy to achieve.”

She married fellow lawyer Anthony Hoggett in 1968. In 1992, having separated from Hoggett, she married another lawyer, Julian Farrand. Their joint plans for retirement were overturned last year by his unexpected death. 

She is 76 and still possesses the clarity and precision that took her to the top of her profession. She claims to suffer from imposter syndrome but is fiercely ambitious, proud both of her own achievements and those of her high-flying daughter Julia Hoggett, now the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange and one of the most powerful gay activists in Britain.

Hale will go on promoting equality at the bar, and told me she has two prescriptions to make it more inclusive. “The frivolous answer: get rid of barristers’ and judges’ wigs. The serious answer: tackle the systemic barriers in the legal profession which are holding back both women and members of ethnic minorities.”

Might she want to be political, now that she’s free? I should have anticipated that her answer would begin: “It depends what you mean by political.”

She has never, she points out, been a member of a political party. “But of course I have views on issues that come up in debate and may be prepared to voice them, as long as they don’t make the lives of my successors in the Supreme Court any more difficult than they already are.” 

I suspect we may be hearing her calm, measured voice for a while to come – and Boris Johnson may not always like what he hears.

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