The UK has appointed its first female Lord Chief Justice — this is why it matters
Dame Sue Carr has been appointed to the most senior role of the judiciary in England and Wales, the first time the role of Lord Chief of Justice has gone to a woman in 755 years of its history.
Carr will officially take the position on October 1st, although it is uncertain whether her title will stay the same or change to ‘Lady Chief Justice’, given that there is no historical precedent for a woman in this role.
Carr is a Lady Justice of Appeal, the second highest level of judge in the courts of England and Wales. She began her career as a barrister specialising in commercial law, until 2009 when she became a part-time judge, and was appointed to the high court, Queen’s bench division in 2013. In this role she became the first female high court judge to sit in the technology and construction court.
A specially selected panel had interviewed the two candidates in the final shortlist, which Carr shared with Dame Victoria Sharp, a senior judge and deputy to the retiring Lord Chief Justice who had been considered the favourite by insiders. In the end the final decision was made on the recommendation of the panel, with advice from the Government’s Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with approval from King Charles.
What does the Lord Chief Justice do?
The role of Lord Chief Justice has existed in some form since 1268. Those in the position are also Head of the Judiciary of England and Wales, making it the most senior role in the judiciary, and President of the Courts of England and Wales, with responsibility for representing the views of the judiciary to Parliament and the Government. They also oversee training and resources for the judiciary which are allocated by the Chancellor.
In her new role Carr will face significant challenges. One is the need to address the huge backlogs in cases that have arisen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Successive lockdowns led to the closure of court buildings and suspensions of jury trials, with many defendants now being held for lengthy periods of time in custody and victims left waiting for months and even years to have their cases brought before court.
The judiciary also suffers from underfunding. A 2022 report found that some court buildings are so poorly maintained they pose a health and safety risk. The closure of many courts has made it harder for people to travel to and from court buildings, and cuts to legal aid have made access to legal provision difficult for many people, while also causing burnout among staff who are forced to take on more caseloads.
The first woman Lord Chief Justice — why it matters
The appointment of the first woman to the role represents a significant milestone in England and Wales’ legal history. It has been little over a hundred years since women were first allowed to become barristers, and progress has been slow since — it would take until 1956 for a woman to be appointed to a permanent judicial role for the first time, and it was only in in 2004 when a woman was appointed to the highest court.
Currently women make up just 35% of court judges in England and Wales (however when it comes to tribunal judges, the figure rises to 52%). The number gets lower further up the ranks — at the time of writing there is just one woman among the 12 justices of the UK’s Supreme Court. When compared to other countries that also follow the common law tradition (where the primary source of law is from judge-made decisions rather than statutes), the UK is trailing behind in terms of diversity, with female representation at 50% in New Zealand, 44% in the US, and 43% in Australia.
But why is diversity important if the rule of law is applied objectively and impartially? In her article on the need for more female judges in the UK, Professor Rosemary Auchmuty asks whether it is possible to be objective when you reason from a “very limited knowledge of life and experience.”
Lady Hale, former president of the Supreme Court until she retired in 2020, argued that diversity was important. “The law, the legal profession and the courts are there to serve the whole population, not just a small section of it. They should be as reflective of that population as it is possible to be,” she said.
An example of how a diverse panel of judges can affect an outcome came with the bedroom tax ruling of 2016. A woman who had been the victim of serious domestic violence was housed in a three bedroom property with her child due to the shortage of two bedroom homes. The home had been specially adapted for her security as her ex-partner had been convicted of attempted murder and was harassing her, but the introduction of a cap to housing benefit meant she could no longer afford to live there. While Lady Hale held that the policy was discriminatory towards her and other victims of domestic violence, three of the other four (male) justices upheld the government’s benefit cap.
It is also a matter of confidence from the public. If the judiciary of a multicultural society is formed in its majority by white males, will people believe that justice is actually done?