International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Winter 2013 Issue

In Review:
Recent Publications on International and Comparative Law and About Judges and Courts


Rose Heilbron: The Story of England’s First Woman Queen’s
Counsel and Judge

By: Hilary Heilbron
Hart Publishing, 2012

Rose Heilbron: The Story of England’s First Woman Queen’s

Reviewed By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor, and President, International Judicial Academy

Biographies inspire inspiration. Or perhaps it is better to say, in a more formal, less repetitive way, that biographies create, stimulate, activate, prompt, kindle or nourish inspiration. In looking back over a life-time of reading, some of the most treasured books that I have read have been biographies. One of the tomes that I rate high on my list of all time great books is a biography of the Great Chief Justice, John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith, a noted academic and writer of biographies. I recently had occasion to hear Professor Smith speak at a private gathering in Washington, and was able to tell him that his Marshall biography was the best biography I have ever read.

Although this biography of the first woman Queen’s Counsel (QC) and British judge, Rose Heilbron, written by her daughter who is in her own right a distinguished barrister in Great Britain, perhaps does not rise as high in my estimation as the Marshall biography, it nevertheless is an inspiring story of a very talented woman who overcame many obstacles to achieve a unique place in the history of the legal profession in her country. Although Heilbron is not exactly a household name in the U.S. – probably very few people have ever heard of her - this account of her life will definitely inspire, especially among young women on both sides of the Atlantic who aspire to make their mark in the law. That it is a significant book is demonstrated by the Introduction, written by Cherie Blair, wife of the former British Prime Minister and also a practicing barrister.

Rose Heilbron was born during an inauspicious time – two weeks after the beginning of World War I, when England declared war on Germany. At an early age she demonstrated an aptitude for acting and oratory, which naturally steered her toward the theatre or the law. She ultimately chose the latter. However the circumstances of her birth encumbered her prospects for success at the bar. She was born and raised in Liverpool, well outside the law center that was London at the time, with its Royal Courts of Justice at the busy intersection where The Strand meets Fleet Street. She attended the University of Liverpool, which had an excellent law school but was a so-called “red brick” university, and definitely not of the same reputation as Oxford and Cambridge, the traditional training ground for barristers who “take silk” (become Queen’s Counsel) and those who are later promoted to the judiciary. She was Jewish, at a time when there were pockets of anti-semitism in British society, including probably among those who occupied high places in the legal profession. Finally she was a woman, which perhaps provided the biggest obstacle to her success at the bar. There had been very few women barristers in the long history of the English courts (over 700 years). The first woman barrister was not admitted until 1921.

There were other aspects of her person that would undoubtedly help her. She had taken a first class honours degree at the University of Liverpool, proving that she was well endowed with the necessary mental capacity to succeed. She was also very attractive. In the words of her daughter:

But what of Rose the girl? She was always pretty, with her long cascades of black curls, but as she developed into a young woman; this useful prettiness became a natural beauty enhanced by a wonderful smile. She possessed a remarkably small waist which; which enhanced her slender figure.

There was one other characteristic that helped her in her ambition to succeed,  which developed as she entered the practice of law – her almost total devotion to it. After a pupillage at Gray’s Inn, one of the four “Inns of Court” that are used as training academies for barristers (who argue cases in court – as opposed to solicitors, who most often have purely office practices) she was called to the bar on May 2, 1939. Her entry into law practice, as well as her university training, which included studying for and receiving a Master of Laws (LLM) degree, occurred during the Great Depression, which made finding a place to begin her legal life especially difficult. But she soon was admitted to another “pupillage,” this time in a Liverpool barrister’s chambers soon after taking and passing the bar exam, becoming the youngest barrister in English history. As her daughter noted, she entered the legal profession in the same way as she entered the world, on another “inauspicious occasion” - the outbreak of the Second World War. 

One major quality of Rose Heilbron that was particular important in her rise to prominence was her devotion to her clients, their cause, and to the law. Her daughter provides in the book several anecdotes that demonstrate this quality. One of these arose when she was a junior barrister.  At that time junior barristers generally accompanied senior counsel to the courts and only assisted in the prosecution or defense of a case. A junior barrister was supposed to be seen and not heard. In one case arising out of an alleged false imprisonment, which involved an appeal from an adverse decision in the trial court, the senior barrister arguing for the client was not well acquainted with the case or the important points of law important to it. When the senior counsel finished, as was customary the presiding judge of the three judge panel inquired of junior counsel, who was Rose, whether she would like to speak. Usually this inquiry comes only as a courtesy and the offer is declined. Rose, however, realized that the case was almost lost and subverted tradition by advising the court that she wished to speak. According to the narrative in the book, “she spoke for one and a half hours, turning the case around and winning the appeal for the client.”


There was another occasion, later in her life, that Rose Heilbron had occasion to speak again for one and a half hours. Her rise to prominence at the bar was accompanied by a prominence in civic and political circles. After the end of World War II and the rise of the international movement to create a United Nations, there developed a movement to create a universal statement of human rights. This effort was led by another formidable woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of recently deceased U.S. President Franklin D. Rossevelt. Rose was asked to speak at a national conference of an international women’s organization in support of a draft Covenant of Human Rights which had been prepared by a Human Rights Commission organized under the auspices of the United Nations. She again spoke for one and one half hours. One female journalist, reacting to her speech in a personal letter to her, commented:

The fact that you could keep more than a 1000 women as silent as a tomb for 1 ½ hours, was I think proof that your talk was masterly, your diction appreciated and that you yourself, by sheer personality captured your audience.

It is significant that Rose, after only ten years practicing as a junior barrister, received in April, 1949 a letter advising that a Royal Warrant  “directing Letters Patent to issue appointing you to be one of His Majesty’s Counsel learned in the Law has been prepared…” This was the invitation to “take silk.” She accepted and on April 26, along with one other woman, became one of the first two silks in England and Wales “and thereby made legal history.” She was at the time only 34 years old.

Despite her success at the bar, Rose Heilbron’s real ambition was to become a High Court judge. She had become eligible for an appointment to the bench when she took silk, but she had to wait beyond the normal number of years before any kind of judicial appointment came her way. In February, 1962, she made the first step up the judicial ladder: she was appointed a Commissioner of Assize by the Lord Chancellor (the way judicial officers are selected in the U.K.). She was the first woman so appointed.

Then came the grand moment of her career, when she was appointed Recorder of the market town of Burnley, in Lancashire, on November 26, 1956. The post of Recorder is one of a part time judge Her daughter wrote of this position:

Originally the office of Recorder was created by the Mayor and Aldermen of a borough to “record” or keep in mind the proceedings of their court, as well as the customs of the city. The term evolved to refer to the principal legal officer of a city or borough, having a separate court of Quarter Sessions of which the Recorder is sole judge of the court.

It was an historical moment of epic proportions – she had become England’s first woman judge. There was another first that soon followed. In her position as Recorder she was eligible to sit in other courts, and she became the first woman ever to sit and try a case in the Old Bailey, London’s famous criminal court (as in Rumpole of the Old Bailey).

There were other significant events in the life of Rose, where she was a “first,” although they came “late in the day.” In the four Inns of Court that still exist in London, all have a group of senior barristers who occupy “the Bench” in the Inn. These so-called “Benchers” are responsible for the governance of the Inn. Rose was invited to be a Bencher at Gray’s Inn, becoming the first woman barrister to become a Bencher in her own right rather than by reason of judicial appointment.

The Treasurer of an Inn of Court is the chief executive officer of the Inn, and in the final years of her legal life, she was elected Treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1985, the first woman Treasurer of any Inn of Court. In another first, while she was still practicing law, she was appointed Leader of the group of barristers of the Northern Circuit (a judicial subdivision within the English court system), the first woman so honored in any circuit (and this was by unanimous agreement, another first).

Although she aspired to appointment to the High Court bench, Rose Heilbron was not the first woman to be appointed to that court. That honor went to Elizabeth Lane QC in August, 1965. Rose’s appointment to that court did not come until October, 1974. Also, when at last appointed to that court, she was not assigned to one of the divisions of the High Court where her background and talents would have been more useful, the Queen’s Bench or Chancery Divisions. She was assigned to the Family Division, probably as a result of lingering gender prejudices among the male hierarchy of the High Court.

Rose Heilbron was truly an exceptional woman who paved the way for women in the legal profession not only in the U.K. but in many other countries. She stands as a constant beacon for the cause of women lawyers all over the world. That is a very good reason for women aspiring to a legal career to take time to read this excellent biography written by someone who knew the subject intimately, her daughter.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2013 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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