Carr to be chief
But will she be lord or lady?
Dame Sue Carr is to be the next chief justice of England and Wales. When she takes up her post at the beginning of October, she will be the first woman in history to head the English and Welsh judiciary.
Aged 58, Lady Justice Carr DBE has been an appeal judge for little more three years. It’s just 10 years since she was appointed a High Court judge.
The only other candidate to apply was Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the King’s Bench division and effectively the chief justice’s deputy. Now 67, she may decide to bring forward her retirement.
I disclosed this week that Carr will be invited to choose her own title: lord chief justice, lady chief justice or simply chief justice. Today’s announcement from Downing Street uses the traditional form.
The post comes with a peerage but serving judges are not allowed to take part in parliamentary proceedings.
Carr grew up in Surrey, attending Wycombe Abbey school, Buckinghamshire, before reading law at Trinity College, Cambridge. She was called to the bar in 1987 and then practised as a barrister, specialising in general commercial law with an emphasis on professional liability and insurance. A bencher of Inner Temple, she was appointed Queen’s Counsel (now King’s Counsel) in 2003.
She became chair of the Professional Negligence Bar Association in 2007, chair of the Bar Standards Board Conduct Committee in 2008 and was appointed complaints commissioner to the International Criminal Court in the Hague in 2011 before becoming head of chambers at Four New Square.
Appointed to the High Court in June 2013 and assigned to what was then the Queen’s Bench division, Carr became a nominated judge of the Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court in 2014. She sat as a member of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal from 2014 to 2016 and served as a presiding judge on the Midland Circuit from 2016 to 2020.
Carr was sworn in as a Lady Justice of Appeal in April 2020. From August 2020 to January 2023 she was the senior judicial commissioner and vice-chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission. She resigned so that she could apply for the post of chief justice, which will become vacant when Lord Burnett of Maldon retires at the end of September.
She is married and has three children. Fluent in French and German, she was formerly a keen actress, performing with the Bar Theatrical Society. She currently sings with the Bar Choral Society.
In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action in the spring of last year, I asked Carr to respond to claims by solicitors’ representatives that the Judicial Appointments Commission was biased in favour of barristers. As you can hear from this extract, Carr dealt with the questions robustly and confidently:
We don’t often know who the unsuccessful candidates are in judicial appointments — except perhaps at the very highest level — and we can only speculate about why Carr pipped Sharp to the post.
One obvious factor is that Carr is some nine years younger. In times gone by, greater experience would be seen as an advantage. But the post of chief justice is now hugely demanding. Nobody can do it for more than five or six years without getting burned out.
I told the Telegraph last week that although Sharp was the obvious favourite, Carr had the more “outwardly confident personality” and that “she would be better able to do the public-facing stuff… liaising with the government and the lord chancellor”. At my request, the newspaper did not quote me by name.
It’s not widely understood that in addition to presiding over the most important appeal hearings, both criminal and civil, the chief justice has regular meetings with the justice secretary and the prime minister. As Burnett made clear in oral evidence to the Lords constitution committee yesterday, the chief justice fights the judges’ corner behind the scenes on issues of policy and resources while remaining entirely neutral on party political issues. And of course the chief justice, sitting with other judges, is often called upon to decide whether ministers have acted lawfully.
It’s a hugely challenging post but Carr’s appointment will be widely welcomed within the judiciary and beyond.
A Lawyer Writes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.