‘Our college supervisor got the year group together, went round the room and asked each of us, “Solicitor or barrister?” But then he added, “The Bar is no place for women, so it’s solicitor for you” to each woman in the room. I was pretty outraged, and that was when I found myself thinking for the first time, “Perhaps the Bar is for me.” It was the desire to prove him wrong and to prove to myself that I could do it that led me to the Bar. And I say to young people now, that my apparent straight-line career – law at university, Bar, silk, High Court, Court of Appeal – is not how it felt to me.’ This is Dame Ingrid Simler, Lady Justice since 2019, talking to me in her room at the Royal Courts of Justice, on the Strand.

Earlier generations of her family fled from pogroms in Lithuania and the surrounding region in the early 1900s. ‘There was a drive to bring Jewish families to South Africa in those days and my grandfather went there as a boy in about 1911 on one of those ships. I was born there in 1963. There was a strong sense of family, which centred on food and having meals together; and we had a very comfortable life there. But the apartheid regime became increasingly intolerable to my parents and the constant question was do we stay and resist in whatever way possible, or do we leave. Eventually they emigrated in 1972, when I was nine, and we set up home in North London.

‘There was always talk at home – as there had been in South Africa – about equality and treating people fairly and not because of the colour of their skin. This gave me a heightened sense of the viciousness of race discrimination and the importance of equality. I may have been naïve but I think we all expected the UK to be a bastion of equality and fair treatment.

‘My father was a lawyer in South Africa and had to requalify when he got here. My mother had been a stay-at-home mum but studied and qualified as a solicitor here. My brother, sisters and I all went to the local state primary school. I am the eldest. South African schooling had not been as sophisticated, and my early years of learning at school in London were difficult. My sisters and I then went to Henrietta Barnett School, the local grammar.’ Here her educational progress took off. ‘I had a good friend, academically excellent. We vied with each other to be top. We had excellent teachers. I loved school. I loved learning. I put in a lot of effort, was teased as a swot, but felt were huge rewards. I was torn between arts and science. I would have done six A levels if I could.’ She took Maths, History and A and S level French.

‘Though I loved English, I didn’t do it because, as my parents said, there was no need – I would always love it. And I always have. My fiction reading – for which sadly there is only time in the holidays – goes through phases. Currently it’s Carson McCullers and Ernest Hemingway. I enjoy reading biographies of judges and lawyers, and loved Lady Hale’s Spider Woman. And I listen to audio books while walking to and from work every day.’ She keeps fit through running, high-intensity training and yoga. ‘When I relax in front of the TV I like dramas about miscarriages of justice.’

Why law? ‘My dream was to be an actor. I wanted to go to drama school and fancied myself as the next Judi Dench. A bad idea, said my parents. So few succeed and if acting fails, what will you do? Get a degree first so you have a fallback. There seemed to be plenty of opportunities to act while studying at Oxford and Cambridge. I had heard of Footlights so I went for Cambridge. Next question: what to study. By now both my parents were working in City law firms, and they said: why not do law; it’s a very good back-up. I applied for law and won a place at Sidney Sussex.’

Did you care enough about law to be credible at interview? ‘I think I was a good actor! And when I got to Cambridge I did do a huge amount of acting – funnily enough not at Footlights – I learned that I was no comedian. There were never enough good female parts, so with a group of other like-minded women, we formed a company called Trouble and Strife and took several plays (written, directed and acted by women) to the Edinburgh Fringe. Although that made up for not getting all the parts I wanted in other plays, I found the rejection difficult and it affected my love of acting.

‘Meanwhile, it turned out that I was enjoying my law studies. I did labour law as an option, which stood me in good stead later, and then a Master’s in EU Law at Amsterdam, where I wrote my dissertation on equal treatment in occupational pension schemes. That led me to apply for a pupillage in EU law.’ She was called in 1987 and was given a full pupillage in what is now Monckton Chambers. ‘The competition work was very interesting but the cases were huge, and there was very little opportunity to go to court. I wanted to be an advocate. I began to feel that chambers and I were not a good fit. I spoke to the head of pupillage, Richard Buxton QC (as he then was). He was supportive and suggested a move to Devereux Chambers. I went for an interview and they gave me a second six and in due course a tenancy. Sir Richard Buxton has remained a friend and very supportive mentor.

‘Devereux was a common law set, with a strong reputation in employment and personal injury work, and seeking to improve its broader civil credentials. Tax work took off when Timothy Brennan (now KC) took over as Junior Counsel to the Inland Revenue in 1997 and I followed him in that role four years later. I also developed a specialist employment/discrimination practice. Tax was intellectually demanding – heavily statute-based. Discrimination gave a window into human motivation and behaviour and what drove people to do the things they did. It was an ideal mix for me. Chambers was becoming more strategic in its offering. I was involved in lots of networking and “soft recruiting”. We gained some really good new joiners; all groups in Chambers thrived. You can tell I’m proud of what we did. I became Head of Chambers in 2012.’

The following year Dame Ingrid applied for the High Court. ‘I’d become a Recorder in 2002 and a deputy High Court judge in 2010, but I regarded this application as a trial run. I was very surprised when I was told I’d been selected. I hadn’t had long enough as Head of Chambers but I hope I left it a happy place.’ After six years in the High Court she entered the Court of Appeal in 2019.

Best thing about being a judge? ‘The fact that you are trying to solve the problem, to find the right answer rather than moulding the case into the answer your client wants. I enjoy the process of writing judgments, distilling the reasoning to its simplest, clearest, most accessible form. I loved being in the High Court, including presiding over my own criminal trials, some moments of which are emblazoned on my memory.’ Like the witness who, while being questioned about her assistance to the defendant, her brother, after a killing, and having been warned about the privilege of self-incrimination, engaged in a theatrical faint on the court floor. She built on her experience of employment law with a three-year spell as the first woman President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal from 2016.

‘In the Court of Appeal I enjoy the way we work, being one of three, sitting with colleagues and in many ways I prefer this to sitting alone. About a week or so before the appeal hearing, one of us is fixed as lead judge in the sense of being committed to write the only or main judgment of the court if possible. We usually exchange provisional views in advance; these can change more than once during the hearing; and then there is further discussion immediately after the end of the hearing and sometimes in the following days. Members of the court are all engaged in trying to find the right answer, not in trying to prove themselves. The idea of what makes a good judge is different now from my early years at the Bar: I think judges are more respectful of one another and of counsel; much less sure of their infallibility and more willing to listen and accommodate one another.’

What makes good advocacy? ‘Start with a good structure, which deals with the real points at issue, and stick to it. Advocates who demonstrate quickly that they are on top of the facts (and the documents!) and the legal issues immediately gain my confidence, as do those who give straight answers to judicial questions. It’s not rocket science but not everybody does it. If the court asks a question, it wants counsel to provide the answer. Sometimes they don’t have it or appear not to think it worth giving. The quality of advocacy before us is surprisingly variable; often extremely good, but sometimes surprisingly poor. Whenever I went to the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court I overprepared by miles. It’s not always the case now. It can be exasperating. But it’s not my job to tick people off. What it means is that the court ends up having to do the work for the party.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘I think there is no better career than the Bar if you are prepared to work hard and commit wholeheartedly. Don’t be too rigid about the area you think will suit you: academic law is so very different from practice; for example, I loved studying EU law but it didn’t play to my strengths in pupillage. There is also quite a lot of luck and a degree of randomness about where you might end up. So be flexible and keep an open mind. If you rise to every opportunity you are given, by doing the best work you can, on time and to the best standard, you create a virtuous circle.

‘You also need to be resilient. There were occasions in my career when everything felt difficult and highly pressured, but you just have to keep going. Combining a career with bringing up four children inevitably had its terrible moments and at times I felt I was succeeding at neither. There were also times when, though there was nothing overt, I felt I was being treated differently as a woman. But I didn’t let that stop me either.’

She leads on diversity for Inner Temple and is a past chair of the Bar Council’s Equality Committee. ‘We must address diversity at all levels in the judiciary and the legal professions. Increasing the numbers from unrepresented groups is important but is not enough. We have to focus on culture change and inclusion. The issues are different between and within different communities, different between people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and different according to professional background as well. Socio-economic status and background are much bigger issues than are currently recognised, and the disadvantage experienced is often compounded by race and other types of intersectionality.’

Then there’s the human level. ‘In court and out I try to take the time to treat everyone as an individual, not making assumptions about them, listening and being respectful of individuality and difference. I try to be careful about the language I use. Ultimately it’s about respect. If everybody just slowed down and thought more deliberately about the small everyday interactions with others, that would be a good start.’