BARONESS Brenda Hale has a bright shiny bee illuminating the left shoulder of her grey dress. It is a lovely grey dress, rolled at the neck, flared at the waist, but it is just a plain grey dress, and so the buzzy bee catches the eye.

“I do have a large number of brooches,” she says, with an air of weary resignation that she should be answering questions about fashion accessories but also with an amused fascination that anyone should wish to discuss such things with her.

“It began with my husband giving me brooches to liven up the dark suits and dresses that I had to wear in the Family division, and they are almost all creatures of one sort of another: a bee, dragonflies, frogs, I’ve got a fox and some sheep.

“They find their way onto a particular garment and if that’s where they look right, that’s where they stay.”

And, of course, she has spiders. It was a spider that dazzled on her dark dress on television in September 2019 when she, as President of the Supreme Court, delivered a devastating judgement that Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament in the rarefied run-up to Brexit, was “unlawful, void and to no effect”.

As MPs returned to Parliament, the spider took on a life of its own, with newspaper columns and online memes appearing to tell its hidden meaning – oh! what a wicked web we weave, when we first practise to deceive.

The autobiography of Baroness Hale of Richmond, published this week, is entitled Spider Woman, an allusion to the brooch, although she has also spent her 50-year career untangling the complex threads of the knottiest legal webs to produce judgements of great clarity and humanity.

And she has spent her career smashing through glass ceilings that had been so out of reach for so long for women that they had become covered with cobwebs. She, though, became the first female Law Commissioner and, in 2004, the first female Lord of Appeal in the Ordinary since the position was created in 1876.


Lady Hale ruling on the Prime Ministers prorogation of Parliament in September 2017

Lady Hale ruling on the Prime Minister's prorogation of Parliament in September 2017


There wasn’t even a toilet for female judges in the House of Lords and all the case papers were addressed to “His Lordship”, presumptions that she rapidly confronted, leading her to be called “a frank and fearless feminist” and “the Beyonce of the Legal World”.

Her story begins in the village of Scorton, between Richmond and Darlington, where her father was the headteacher of the grammar school, a private boarding school that was just restarting after the war.

“We moved to Scorton in 1948, and there was lots of evidence of the war all around. Scorton had had a bomber airfield and we were close to Catterick, and there were quite a few of the people living in Nissen huts who had been bombed out of Teesside,” she says.

She went to Bolton-on-Swale primary school and then Richmond High School for Girls, but at 13, her father died suddenly.

“My mother had qualified as a teacher in the Thirties but when she married my father in 1936 she had to give up teaching, that was the rule,” she says. “She’d run the boarding house at the grammar school but basically she had been the support for my father, but when he died, she picked herself up, dusted off her teaching qualifications and got the job as head of the primary school, and that meant that my younger sister and I could continue living in the village and going to school in Richmond. It gave us the security which we feared we had lost.”

At school, she developed a fascination with 17th Century history, when the all powerful king was cut down to size – literally, as Charles I was beheaded for treason in 1649 – but then the constitutional monarchy was restored with checks and balances in place.

“I was a speccy swat, absolutely no doubt about that,” she says. “I did work hard, partly because I enjoyed it, although I did have a bit of a teenage crush on Cliff Richard – a friend and I went to see him in panto at Stockton and we were extremely disappointed that no one in the audience was screaming.”

She became head girl at Richmond – as did her two sisters – but her headmistress, a historian, didn’t think history was right for her to study at Cambridge and so they settled on law.


Lady Justice Hale.

Lady Justice Hale


It was her upbringing in rural Richmond that fired her interest in fairness and feminism. “It is the belief that women are equal to men in dignity and in rights and that women do have different experiences of life to men and those experiences should be as important in developing, applying and interpreting the law as are the experiences of men,” she says.

“I was one of three daughters, after the age of 13 brought up by our mother alone at a time when 2.5 per cent of girls and five per cent of boys went to university; there were double the number of grammar school places for boys, and when I got to Cambridge there were three women’s colleges and 21 men’s colleges, and I was one of six women studying law with more than 100 men.”

She finished top of her year, catapulting her into a career as a barrister and then a judge, rising through the Family division – where decorum decreed she should dress plainly – and breaking glass ceilings to reach the Court of Appeal.

Her judgements have made all children equal in law, irrespective of their parents’ marital status, and have redefined the meaning of “violence” so that it’s not just brutal and physical but it can also be mental, as in coercive control.

In 2009, when the Supreme Court was created, she became Deputy President and then, in 2017, the President which gave her, and her brooch, a date with destiny as Boris Johnson tried to send MPs off on holiday as the Brexit departure date was approaching.

The legal system mirrored the country: deeply divided. The Scottish courts decided Mr Johnson’s actions were illegal but a court in England upheld them. The Supreme Court had to referee.

In declaring the prorogation void, to remainers, Lady Hale became the epitome of sense, trying to stop an over-mighty Prime Minister silencing pesky Parliamentarians; to leavers, she became the voice of the establishment trying to block Brexit. Lady Hale herself was just trying to apply those 17th Century checks and balances to a troubled time in the 21st Century.

“We were deciding whether it was within the powers of the government to advise Her Majesty to suspend Parliament for an inordinate amount of time, five weeks, when the normal length of prorogation is three to five days, at a particularly crucial time in the nation’s history,” she says. “We weren’t deciding about Brexit – that had already been decided.

“We went back to the 17th Century and decided that this was a question of the extent of the prerogative powers of Parliament and, whatever they were, they didn’t extend as far as this, and that’s why the prorogation is of no effect.”

The 12 Supreme Court judges were unanimous, and Lady Hale retired to her home on the edge of Richmond to write the verdict that she delivered with the eyes of the nation – perhaps the continent – upon her, and her brooch.

“I chose a nice, demure little black dress and it happened to have a spider on it,” she says. “In fact, its normal spider had dropped off, so I went and found another spider – £12 from Cards Galore – and it never crossed my mind that anyone would read anything into it.

“I was thinking about other things – is my summary accurate enough, is it complete enough, how are we going to get through the day, are there going to be riots – not about spiders.”


Spider Woman

Spider Woman


And then she adds with a mischievous smile: “Nor did I know that The Who had a song called Boris the Spider in which Boris comes to a sticky end. Had I known that, I would have undoubtedly not worn a spider badge.”

Spider Woman by Lady Hale is published by Bodley Head (£20)