Few are better qualified to talk about the issues highlighted by International Women’s Day than Baroness Heather Hallett. In a legal career spanning half a century, she almost made a speciality of smashing through glass ceilings. In doing so, she became a role model for many other women trying to make their way in the law. In retirement, she shows no signs of slowing down. She has just joined an all-star cast at Red Lion Consulting offering expertise to law firms, governments, NGOs and corporations and has taken on several new roles including acting as Coroner for the inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess, a victim of the Salisbury Novichok poisoning.

Heather knows only too well how tough life can be for women lawyers facing prejudice and discrimination. As the state-school educated daughter of a policeman and a secretary, the dice were loaded against her when she determined to become a lawyer. She won a place to study law at Oxford (despite the advice of her teachers) and was called to the Bar in 1972.

‘At that time women, and people from my background, were not expected to succeed at the Bar,’ she says. Her application for a scholarship was rejected, she says, because of a view that a woman would not survive: ‘I had no contacts, no way in.’

Behind some of this prejudice lay the belief that a legal career could not be combined with motherhood. ‘If you decided you wanted to have a family, the bulk of caring responsibility fell on you. It meant that at the end of the day the mother went straight from court into childcaring mode. Male counterparts could go into CV building mode and networking thereby gaining an immediate advantage.’

‘There were judges and senior barristers who did not believe women with children should be at the Bar. Some judges made life as difficult as possible to encourage you to give up. Some clerks didn’t accept that women could have children and carry on. There was no understanding and no support when you encountered any problems.’

Heather married a fellow barrister and they went on to have two children. ‘Initially he did not understand some of the problems I faced being female – but he does now. I think I’ve turned him into a feminist!’

She wishes now that she had challenged the discriminatory culture of that time. ‘I did not challenge at the beginning. There was a fear it would affect your career. I regret that, but my mitigation is that we did not have the kind of awareness that we have today, where women who have problems are encouraged to come forward.’

‘One judge made a comment to me that should have got him sacked had I told anyone about it. I didn’t tell anyone – including my husband. I knew that if I got that senior figure into trouble, I would not have a career.’

Nor was there much support forthcoming from women who had trodden this difficult path before her. ‘Many of the women senior to me appeared quite tough and I did not detect in them a huge amount of support for other women. The vast majority kept their heads down. Most didn’t want to be seen as feminists.’ 

She found the encouragement she needed in an unofficial network of women who supported and inspired each other. It may have been a male-dominated profession, but her career progressed at a dizzying pace. She took silk in 1989, was the first woman to chair the Bar in 1998, became a High Court judge in 1999 and in 2005 became only the fifth woman to sit in the Court of Appeal. But even as she became more senior, she still encountered what she calls ‘inbuilt societal attitudes’. ‘If someone discovered I was a judge, they assumed I did family work. I would be proud to do it, but there was an assumption that I would do “womanly” stuff.’

Her profile outside the profession rose when she acted as coroner in the inquests of the 52 people killed in the London bombings of July 2005. She found the testimony of the bereaved, the survivors and the emergency services humbling. ‘They were such astonishing people, and their courage and dignity blew me away.’ In 2014, she took on a task in its way just as sensitive and demanding – an independent review of the promises made to so-called ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland; those suspected of terrorist offences during the Troubles who, as part of the peace negotiations, had been given letters of assurance that they would not be prosecuted. The result was the Hallett Review, which found that the scheme was lawful but there had been significant systemic failures in its operation.

Heather was also heavily involved in Bar politics – partly because she wanted to bring about improvements, but also as a conscious effort to raise her profile. It gave her a strong base to campaign against some of the inequalities she had been too afraid to challenge as a young barrister. She is proud of what the profession has achieved during the last 20 years albeit she believes there is still a way to go. ‘There are now support structures in place for women and networking opportunities and it is far easier to bring issues to the fore’. But she acknowledges that it is still not easy to complain of harassment or discrimination. ‘I understand why people may be reluctant to complain. You don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker. Nonetheless, I hope people will have the strength (I didn’t have) to challenge’. At the very least, she says, they should seek advice from an independent person on their options. It is one of the reasons she believes wholeheartedly in mentors – people who can provide support and advice on a whole range of issues.

Having devoted her energies to increasing the number of women on the Bench and promoting social diversity, she says this: ‘Even if we have not eradicated all discrimination and unconscious bias, we have made strides in raising awareness of the issues and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the profession. People are beginning to understand that diversity in the legal profession is very important, in particular for parties to see that lawyers and judges come from similar backgrounds to them and look a bit more like them.’

For all her success, the very top job – that of Lady Chief Justice – eluded her. She makes no bones about her disappointment. But as a member of the House of Lords, she believes she can play a part in improving the clarity of legislation, raising concerns about underfunding and arguing that a healthy democracy depends on a healthy justice system.

‘I hope we have improved the lot of quite a few women, and set women on a path whereby they will achieve even greater things in years to come.’