Baroness Brenda Hale, the first woman to become President of the UK’s Supreme Court and one of the architects behind the pivotal Children Act 1989, will retire on 10th January, 2020.
Lady Hale may have risen to the top of the legal hierarchy, but she is remembered by most child rights campaigners as the judge who tried to put children first in court settings and cases involving child welfare issues.
And as the person who pushed the boundaries of family law so that it worked as a practical tool to enable better outcomes for children.
While the Children Act 1989 has its fair share of critics, most notably because it includes the right to remove children from parents without their consent (forced/ non consensual/ involuntary adoption) and because it uses the nebulous test of ‘risk of future harm’ to allow those removals, it is also the first piece of legislation in England and Wales to try to put children at the centre of every child welfare case.
Pioneered by Lady Hale and others who formed an Interdepartmental Working Group including representatives from the DHSS policy makers (Rupert Hughes), legal department (Edwin Moutrie) and social work (Pam Thayer), the Home Office (Bill Jeffrey), and the Lord Chancellor’s Department (Peter M Harris), the Children Act 1989 included key clauses which insisted that children should be the priority in every family law case.
Hale’s compassionate judgments and courageous efforts at applying the law in a way which allowed children to be put first, as well as using those judgments to remind child welfare professionals that children had to be the most important consideration in any case they worked on, earned her a great deal of respect and admiration around the world.
Baroness Hale famously once said that the law had trouble viewing children as real people, in a speech she gave for the Society of Legal Scholars Centenary Lecture, and was often critical of the way the legal system worked, not for the most disadvantaged, but for the wealthy few.
She was passionate about ensuring that children were only removed from their parents in child protection proceedings where absolutely necessary, and spent a great deal of time in the Supreme Court when family law cases came before her, repeating the legal principle that adoptions should always be the method of last resort and not the first, wherever possible.
Researching Reform will be sad to see her leave the Supreme Court, but we hope she will remain active in the fields of family law and child rights, and use her brilliance to help improve the family courts in ways she may not have been able to do so as the country’s most senior judge.
Wishing you luck, Lady Hale, and a wonderful retirement.
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