#ThrowbackThursday - Rose Heilbron, 1972
A woman of many legal firsts. On this day in 1972 she became the first female judge to preside at the Old Bailey.
Rose Heilbron was the first woman take the top First in Law from Liverpool University, and subsequently to be the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray's Inn. She was one of the first two women to be appointed King's Counsel in England, the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman to plead a case in the House of Lords, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey in 1972, the first female leader of the Northern Circuit from 1973, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray's Inn. She was also the second woman to be appointed a High Court judge, after Elizabeth Lane. One of the first women to
Some of her notable cases included defending the gangster, George Kelly, which lead to her being named the Daily Mirror’s ‘Woman of the Year’ in 1946 aged just 29. Her bold decision to call a psychiatrist as the only defence witness for the Knowsley Hall footman, in the case of shooting two men dead and seriously wounding the Countess of Derby in the smoking room of Derby’s stately home, was considered a master stroke. In another high-profile case, her client Freeman Reese, a black deserter from the US Army was acquitted of murdering a policeman in Burton-upon-Trent.
Respected by the public, but above all by her criminal defendants, bookie Jack "Spot" Comer, found not guilty of stabbing a man in Soho in 1955, said to reporters gathered outside the Old Bailey: "If you want something to write about, write about Rose Heilbron. She's the greatest lawyer in history."
Rose Heilbron's most famous judgment in 1987, set a legal precedent still cited today. It involved an Oxford undergraduate who was seeking to prevent his former girlfriend from aborting their unborn child. Her ruling that there are no grounds for preventing an abortion at a father's instance if the foetus is incapable of being born alive, which was unanimously upheld by the Court of Appeal and House of Lords, creating an important precedent.
She lent her powerful voice to further female legal protection, with an important contribution to the law of rape, after being chosen by Roy Jenkins to head an independent inquiry in 1975, where she recommended that rape victims should remain anonymous and be protected from unnecessary cross-examination about their sexual history, both becoming law, along with the position that a man is innocent of rape if he honestly believes a woman is consenting, no matter how unreasonable his belief.
Her full life's story is told by her daughter Hillary, also a successful Barrister, in her book published in 2012.