Discover more from A Lawyer Writes
A judge named Sue
What we learned about the lady chief justice
You couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sympathy for Dame Victoria Sharp yesterday. The president of the King’s Bench division appeared to be sitting in the presiding judge’s chair for the swearing-in of the new lady chief justice of England and Wales yesterday, flanked by the other heads of division, the president of the Supreme Court and the lord chancellor.
Was she thinking of what might have been? Everyone knew that Sharp had been interviewed for the top job, only to be overtaken by a more junior member of the Court of Appeal. She had to sit there mutely as everyone heaped praise on Dame Sue Carr. As the master of the rolls said, “Sue will now always be first.”
There were some excellent speeches. Here are my edited highlights:
Sir Geoffrey Vos, master of the rolls
It is an honour and a privilege for us to have heard the oaths of Sue Lascelles Carr on her appointment as lady chief justice of England and Wales. I want to be the first to congratulate her on behalf of all of you, on behalf of the entire judiciary and the legal professions of England and Wales on this momentous achievement…
It will not surprise anyone to know that all the members of Sue’s family have played a tremendous part in supporting her in her meteoric career. Without in any way undermining Sue’s own considerable talents, her family bear a significant portion of the responsibility for her appointment today to the top job in the judiciary…
I am honoured, and a little humbled, to be giving this introductory address at what is a landmark in our national life. The ceremony may be familiar to many of you but there is additional significance today. Sue is the first woman ever to have been appointed chief justice of England and Wales.
That is in itself both remarkable and an achievement that should be celebrated. Sue will now always be first.
In celebrating her appointment though, we should be careful not to be complacent. A milestone, however notable, on a long road is not the end of a journey. Work remains for us all to make our judiciary as diverse and as inclusive as it should be. I can think of no better person to spearhead that task than our new lady chief justice.
I have no doubt that Sue will be a champion for equality, diversity and inclusion in the judiciary and in the legal sector more generally. She will be an excellent role model for the lawyers and judges that follow her. And my hope is that when the time eventually comes, many years from now, for Sue’s valedictory, the remarkable feature of today’s ceremony will seem simply routine.
I was struck when doing some research for this address by what Sue herself said about feminism. And I thought I would quote briefly her comments taken from an interview in 2020 for her old school, Wycombe Abbey.
“To me,” she said, “feminism is having that true freedom of choice. Sometimes the burden of potential is a heavy one. And it’s all too easy to go down a certain career path because it seems to be what is wanted of you. So perhaps you could be prime minister. But if actually you really want to be a painter or to teach riding and your circumstances permit it, then that is what you should do.”
From a personal point of view, having known Sue Carr for many years now both at the bar and on the bench, I can say that she has practised what she preached. Nobody has pushed her into today — even if she was, as I’ve said, encouraged and supported by her family. I’m sure that she is now taking on the job that she really wants to do.
Let me say a little more, as criminal lawyers might say, about her history and antecedents. After Wycombe Abbey, Sue went to Trinity College Cambridge to read French and German before switching to law, after part one. And there she was taught by some of the great legal academics of that generation: Tony Weir, Gareth Jones, Conor Gearty, Chris Greenwood and John Hopkins to name but a few. She muses wistfully on what Tony Weir might have said, had he lived long enoough to see this day.
Along the way, Sue earned three half-blues for lacrosse and did much acting, debating and sport. Her pupil supervisors were Mark Howard at Brick Court Chambers and then Chris Gibson at what was then 2 Crown Office Row but became 4 New Square, where Sue took up their offer of a tenancy.
It was something of a surprise, to Sue at least, when she was offered a pupilage at 2 Crown Office Row because she was interviewed by Rupert Jackson and John Powell— as we lawyers know them, of Jackson and Powell fame.
Sue was asked what books on professional negligence she had read. She said, oh I can’t remember the name but it’s a blue book with red lettering on the cover and it’s really good. She had no idea it was the authors who were interviewing her.
Messrs Jackson and Powell managed to control themselves until she closed the door behind her, when she heard uproarious laughter from within. The rest, as one might say, is history.
As Sue went on to develop what we would now call a broad business and property courts practice, undertaking professional negligence, TCC [Technology and Construction Court] and some chancery work, she became president of the Professional Negligence Bar Association, head of chambers at 4 New Square, chair of the Bar Standards Board’s conduct committee and the complaints commissioner to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
I spent part of my summer holiday — and you’ll think this rather sad, I’m afraid — dipping in to Lord Campbell’s three volumes on the Lives of the Chief Justices of England, written and published in the middle of the 19th century. The work is notable perhaps for dealing in meticulous detail with the discreditable activities of numerous justiciars and chief justices down the ages. Lord Campbell reserves praise for only a few: Sir Edward Coke, Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Mansfield and Lord Ellenborough were most notable amongst those praised. But the same cannot be said for Lord Campbell’s treatment of the likes of Sir William Scroggs and the infamous Sir George Jeffreys.
I mention all this because it was plain to me from what I read that our justice system might have suffered a somewhat less turbulent time if it had considered the appointment of women judges and women chief justices a long time ago. So I’m sorry, Sue, for going on about the “first woman” thing, but I make no apology for celebrating the diversity of our era, as compared to history.
Let me return to the task of telling you a little more about our new lady chief justice... In the Court of Appeal, as elsewhere, Sue has been a whirlwind, churning out excellent, often ground-breaking judgments in double-quick time and putting her hand up for jobs that needed doing, whether glamorous or not.
I’ve been extremely grateful, personally, for her sure-footed membership of numerous committees concerned with subjects as disparate as CE filing; appointments to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, the Court of Appeal standing committee and the judiciary’s new website. People say: if you need a job doing, ask a busy person. Within the judiciary, everybody always knew all you had actually to do was to ask Sue.
What will Sue’s leadership of the judiciary be like? I am sure that it will be like her judgments and her submissions at the bar: thoughtful, considered, and both incisive and decisive. But perhaps more, even than that, the word I used earlier: ground-breaking…
She will work hard and lead from the front. She will not be pushed around. Sue is her own woman and will act according to what she knows to be right. What better foundation for the beginning of a new chief justice’s period in office?
I understand that Sue claims to be the 98th chief justice, as her predecessor Lord Burnett claimed to be the 97th. I’m not so sure.
Lord Campbell’s Lives of the Chief Justices would have us believe that the first chief justiciar — as the Normans called them, and they created the posts so that they should know — was Odo, appointed in 1066. And there have been many more than 98 justiciars and chief justices since 1066. But I don’t want to get competitive. Sue will know that I only care about any of this because I claim to be the 98th master of the rolls since John de Langton was appointed to the post on 10 May 1286…
Let me be serious for a moment. I know that Sue’s appointment has been welcomed at all levels of the judiciary. I want to assure her that she will be supported through thick and thin by all her colleagues. She has taken on a tough job. There will be hard times as well as good, but I’m sure she will do it brilliantly.
The qualities that I’ve mentioned will enable her to deal with the massive workload, whilst at the same time contributing hugely to the jurisprudence of the English common law. More than this, I know, as is so important that she will work effectively with the lord chancellor Alex Chalk and with all of the many organs of government with whom she will deal. I know that she will support and respect each and every one of the members of the judiciary that she leads. She will be fearless in protecting the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.
May I then end this introduction by congratulating Lady Chief Justice Carr on her appointment and on taking her oaths of office. And may I wish her well in her tenure as the 98th chief justice of England and Wales and, perhaps most of all, wish her the very best of British luck.
Alex Chalk KC MP, lord chancellor
As the master of the rolls has set out so eloquently, Lady Carr is eminently qualified to lead our justice system. Throughout her distinguished career, she has demonstrated the highest ability and acquired exceptional breadth and depth of experience across many areas of the law.
Amongst so much high and worthy achievement, I was pleased to discover we are both veterans of the Bar Theatrical Society.
She joined the Court of Appeal. I joined the circus.
Victoria Prentis KC MP, attorney general
In a recent interview, Sue was asked for her heroes. She named two: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court justice, and Elsie Bowerman, the suffragette who survived the Titanic, witnessed the Russian Revolution and was the first woman barrister to appear at the Old Bailey.
It’s fair to say that, today, Sue is blazing a trail of her own. It gives me real pleasure to use the use the term “lady chief justice”. When I was called to the bar almost 30 years ago, there were very few women pupils, no senior women in chambers and a handful of women in the senior judiciary. Sue’s cohort, a few years ahead of me, were real role models. They still are…
The first time Sue was led in the Court of Appeal, she was asked, after her leader had sat down, whether she wished to “follow”. She wasn’t sure what to do. Two versions of the story have been relayed to me.
By one retelling, Sue shook her head so vigorously that the wig came off and landed in the court clerk’s lap.
Or, in the alternative, Sue politely thanked the court for asking and then explained that she endorsed what Rupert said and she had followed most of it — but there were a couple of tricky areas which she was less convinced by…
Sue had four career ambitions as a small child — to be a lawyer, an actress, an air hostess and an interpreter in The Hague. Sue is an excellent linguist, speaking both French and German.
Shortly before she went on the bench, she accepted a brief to prosecute at The Hague — not directly in her practice area, but Sue doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The proceedings were also in French. She didn’t shy away from that either and got on with it, in French. I have absolutely no doubt that airlines will be queuing up to recruit her on her retirement.
Sue is married to Alexander Birch. Alex read law at Cambridge but, since then, his major contribution to the law has been using his corporate strategy skills and the diplomatic skills he learned in the cradle to help Sue manage the household and bring up Emily, William and Ed.
I know that Sue is grateful for the sacrifices Alex has made for her career. But she’s also proud that they have both worked in fulfilling careers while looking after their children.
In fact, at every point in her career, Sue has promoted this sort of balance. A week after she was elected head of chambers, she sent an email which emphasised that professional success is not just to be measured by the size of the practice or the brief fee but involves each person finding the balance between work and real life which suits them — and that all are to be equally valued. This was revolutionary for chambers and encouraged those who had felt on the periphery because they didn’t have the best practices.
Nick Vineall KC, chair of the bar
The constitutional importance of the post of lady chief justice cannot be overstated. The challenges involved cannot be overstated. The virtues of patience and diplomacy that have moulded the position are no less important in the discharge of its responsibilities.
My lady, your purely judicial functions will always be exercised in public, but much of your immense influence will be wielded — and wielded most effectively — in private. And there will always be a gap between the level of activity the media would like to see from the lady chief justice and what is wise or even appropriate for the lady chief justice to undertake.
And all the while, because you are the first lady chief justice — and because you have been appointed by a system which, by statute, selected solely on merit — you will be an unprecedented role model for all of those who are starting their career at the bar, including, but not limited to, the 51% of the present cohort of those starting practice who are women.
My lady, at the bar we know that you will fulfil this role with distinction. And, as a profession, we stand ready to do all that we can ever appropriately do to assist you and the judiciary you lead in your task of doing justice and upholding the rule of law.
Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society
The inauguration of the first lady chief justice is very significant. It shows that, although we have a way to go, our profession is moving in the right direction and under your leadership will continue to do so.
I started my career over 30 years ago. To become the first Asian, first Muslim, and only the seventh female president of the Law Society has been a huge opportunity but also a huge responsibility. It will be even more so for you and I cannot tell you how delighted I am to be the incoming president to welcome you to your role.
Your inauguration today is crucial. It shows members of the legal profession from all backgrounds that they can aspire to hold the very highest office. Representation inspires change. Not long ago, we celebrated 100 years since the first women entered the legal profession. Now we are celebrating the first woman to ascend all the way to the very pinnacle of our legal system. And I hope you are the first of very many more.
A Lawyer Writes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.