Oration for Lady Hale on the occasion of her receipt of an Honorary Fellowship at the University of Bristol in July 2017

Written and orated by Prof Joanne Conaghan, Professor of Law and Head of School (University of Bristol Law School).

In July 2017, the University of Bristol awarded an Honorary Fellowhip to its former Chancellor the Rt. Hon. the Baroness Hale of Richmond, DBE. Professor Joanne Conaghan, Head of the University of Bristol Law School, had the honour of writing the Oration for Lady Hale.

In her Oration, Professor Conaghan stresses the many strengths and achievements of Lady Hale in a career dedicated to the law as it applies to those most vulnerable, such as in the areas of mental health and family law, and to combat inequality, in particular on the basis of gender. Lady Hale’s achievements are indeed particularly remarkable due to the unequal society she lived in through her early years; a society which she is shaping and pushing for transformation, very soon from the seat of the President of the Supreme Court, to which she has been appointed.

The full text of the oration is now reproduced here as a token of the values that the University of Bristol Law School, as a community, strives to foster.


Early in 1945, just as the war to end all wars had entered its final punishing year, a little girl called Brenda was born in Leeds. One wonders whether Brenda’s parents, both school teachers – although as Brenda reports, her mother was required by law to give up teaching when she married Brenda’s father – had any inkling that their middle child, one of three Yorkshire daughters, would rise to such dizzying legal heights, shattering multiple glass ceilings along the way. What parent could imagine that their clever little girl would become the first – and only -woman to join the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords in its 600 years of existence; as well as one of the most outstanding and celebrated jurists in the history of British law?

Brenda, the Right Honourable the Baroness Hale of Richmond, is a phenomenon; and she is our phenomenon because we at the University of Bristol have enjoyed the privilege of her Chancellorship for 13 wonderful years. Throughout her tenure, Brenda’s front and foremost concern has always been you, our students. She has graced our graduation ceremonies with consummate style and genuine warmth; while her achievements as an ‘establishment outsider’ – a woman and a product of the state education system –are an inspiration to anyone who doubts that a winning combination of intellectual talent and sheer hard graft cannot triumph over ignorance and prejudice.

Brenda’s CV is Oscar-winningly good. The only child in her village primary school to pass the 11-plus, Brenda went on to excel at grammar school, winning a scholarship to Girton College Cambridge to study law. To put these achievements into context, you need to know that when Brenda sat her 11-plus, there were twice as many grammar school places for boys than girls in her district and when she applied to Cambridge, only 3 out of 24 colleges accepted women. Brenda went on to achieve a starred first, graduating top of her class after which she joined the University of Manchester as a young legal academic, combining lecturing with study for, and eventually practice at, the Bar. It goes without saying that she came first in her year in her Bar Finals.

While at Manchester, Brenda carved out a name for herself in the fields of mental health law and family law. Moreover, she was co-author of one of the first modern texts on women and law – Atkins and Hoggett, published in 1984 – a book I eagerly devoured during my formative years of legal education, a time when there was little or no legal scholarship on women’s treatment under law. Thus, even in her early academic career, Brenda was a trailblazer, and I am one of many feminist legal scholars who have benefitted from her pioneering scholarship.

After some years at Manchester, Brenda became the first woman – and youngest ever – Law Commissioner, leading the family law team. During her time at the Law Commission, she was at the forefront of a number of important law reform projects concerning children, divorce and mental capacity, the rich benefits of which can still be seen today, most notably in the Children Act 1989 and Mental Capacity Act 2005. By this time Brenda was also a wife and mother, juggling what was becoming an increasingly impressive career alongside the usual domestic duties which women were expected to assume.  Nowadays it is common to talk about the need for work/life balance or to stress the importance of family-friendly working arrangements; but when Brenda started her career, the difficulties women encountered in accessing paid work were still viewed to a large extent as an unavoidable consequence of their biology, something the law could not and should not do anything about. The Sex Discrimination Act was passed only in 1975 the same decade in which the earliest form of maternity leave protection was introduced. Much of the family-friendly infrastructure we now take for granted – parental leave, flexible working arrangements –  came much later, in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century. Brenda reached the highest echelons of the legal profession in a decidedly family-unfriendly working environment, once again reminding us of what is possible even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

When the House of Lords transitioned to the Supreme Court in 2009, Brenda was among the first cohort of justices, and once again the only woman. Since then, she has become Deputy President of the Court and adjudicated in a wide range of cases, garnering a reputation for her strong stance on human rights and social justice. And still she has found the time, not only to come to Bristol regularly and support our educational efforts here, but to travel up and down the country, and sometime across the globe to make the case, in words and in deeds, for judicial diversity.

An Honorary Fellowship is the highest honour the University of Bristol can bestow.  The title is usually conferred on someone who has attained distinction in their academic field and/or has contributed consistently and over a significant period of time to the life of the University. Brenda, Lady Hale, combines a lifetime of unprecedented academic and professional achievement with true humanity and generosity of spirit. She is a model of good living from which countless numbers of University of Bristol graduates have drawn inspiration. It is our great privilege to honour her today.

Chancellor, I present to you The Right Honourable the Baroness Hale of Richmond to receive the distinction of Honorary Fellow of the University of Bristol.

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