'Never give up, and don’t let the bastards grind you down' | In conversation with Lady Hale

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Jack Charters, Deputy Features Editor

Hunkered down in her North Yorkshire home, and following her retirement from the Supreme Court earlier this year, the former University of Bristol Chancellor and ‘Beyoncé of the legal profession’ spoke to Epigram about her momentous year and her time at Bristol.

Lady Hale careered into national headlines in September 2019 when she presided over the Supreme Court’s ruling that ‘the prime minister’s advice to her majesty was unlawful, void, and of no effect… Parliament has not been prorogued’. The frenzied media coverage in the aftermath of the decision became fixated on the spider brooch attached to her right lapel – with the Guardian even reporting that Lady Hale ‘is the latest powerful woman to use a brooch to make a coded statement’.

Social media was sent into a spin as to what the spider actually meant. Was it a pointed metaphor for the ensnarement of Boris’ prorogation plans? A veiled dig at the web of supposed underhand tactics employed by the Conservative government? A defiant message on the need for gender-equality in the UK judiciary? Sadly none of the above.

‘There was no secret message. Truth be told, if I’d realized what a furore my choice of a spider would cause, I would probably have chosen a different brooch. I usually wear a brooch to liven up our rather sober clothing in court and most of them are creatures of one sort or another, so it could easily have been a frog, or a creepy-crawly, or a cat. What would people have made of that?’

Lady Hale delivering her 'Dishonesty' lecture in 2018 | University of Bristol Alumni Association

Her appointment to the role of President of the Supreme Court in October 2017 meant she was the first woman ever appointed to the role. Lady Hale has long been an advocate for greater gender and racial equality in the legal system. With her trailblazing ascent to dizzying legal heights making her a vanguard of gender equality within the UK justice system, I asked her whether she felt the media’s attention on her clothing was unfair compared to that of her male contemporaries.

‘The commentary which I saw was not unfair' she said, 'in the first Miller case, all the talk was of Jonathan Sumption’s ties, which were just as random as my brooches. But as I don’t do social media I may have missed the worst.’

With Lady Hale using lockdown to write her memoirs for publication in 2021 by The Bodley Head publishing house, I asked her which actress could play her if the upcoming memoirs were ever adapted to film. Having first met her last December, her quick wit and air of composed authority immediately made me think that Skyfall’s Dame Judi Dench would be perfect to comprise the role. Lady Hale thought otherwise;

‘Oh, Emma Thompson, without a doubt. Fellow Cambridge graduate and a most convincing High Court Judge in The Children Act(2017). Sadly, we don’t look anything alike, but that’s not usually a problem for someone as talented as she is.’

Her trailblazing ascent to dizzying legal heights made her a vanguard of gender equality within the UK justice system.

However her time in lockdown has not been spent entirely on writing her book. '[I have enjoyed] looking after the house and my husband, cooking nutritious and hopefully delicious meals, and going for walks in the nearby lanes’ and ‘working on outstanding Supreme Court decisions' - it makes even the most motivated envious. Lady Hale succinctly, and appropriately, describes this lockdown routine as ‘Bliss’ – reinforced by her preference for ‘the peace and quiet, fewer vehicles on the roads, and watching as spring happens all around us’.

Yet these activities do not fully distract from the worry that plagues us all surrounding ‘the uncertainty about whether anyone really knows how we can come out of this without inviting the virus back into our lives?’. Her lockdown reading on the histories ‘of Cambridge, Manchester and Bristol Universities’ must certainly be doing much in the way of preoccupying her mind. Lady Hale reminisces fondly of her time in academia.

Lady Hale presiding over her last degree ceremony, 2016 | University of Bristol

Her favourite part of her 12 year stint as University of Bristol chancellor from 2004-2016 was ‘making sure that every graduate who walked across that intimidating platform in the Wills Memorial Hall left it with a big smile on their face – it was, as I always said to them, a great day!’. To her, the best things about Bristol are the ‘mix of a historic and exciting city with a world class and exciting University. And the students.’

With such a prominent career in both academia and the law, I wondered if Lady Hale had any regrets. Cryptically, she replied her biggest regret was ‘the comparatively small number of cases in which I was unable to persuade a majority of my fellow Justices to agree with me’ - a response that left me more curious than before; but it is an answer I assume we will never fully know.

Truth be told, if I’d realized what a furore my choice of a spider would cause, I would probably have chosen a different brooch.

In further reflection, she believes the three most important changes to the legal system must be: ‘Bring back a sensible system of public funding for legal services, though help and advice are more important than advocacy. Bring back the local delivery of justice, let’s have a justice caravan and pop-up courts. Find constructive ways to stop sending so many people to prison.’

At the end of our conversation, she offered advice to outgoing graduates who now face significantly poorer job prospects amid the global economic contraction: ‘Be flexible and grab whatever interesting opportunities come your way, no matter how different from what you had planned. Never give up, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. But have fun while you can!’

Please note that this interview was conducted online, thereby adhering to lockdown regulations and ensuring the safety of both parties involved.

Featured Image: University of Bristol


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