Three women who have reached the peak of their jurisdiction’s judiciary talk to Catherine Baksi about the challenges they have faced

The low down

England and Wales was not the first Commonwealth jurisdiction to install a lady chief justice when Dame Sue Carr took the reins last week. In fact, we are something of a laggard. Last month’s annual meeting of the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association included several women who had already ascended to the summit of their judiciaries. Three of them – from Northern Ireland, the Cayman Islands and Mauritius – spoke to the Gazette about their vaulting careers and the challenges they had to overcome. They also reflected on the widespread perception that women judges are more empathetic – and arguably more compassionate – than their male counterparts.

Dame Sue Carr made legal history in England and Wales this month when she was sworn in as the first lady chief justice.

More than 100 years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 allowed women to become lawyers, Carr, 59, became the 98th judge to hold the post and the first woman, since it was established almost 800 years ago.

In a statement, Lady Carr said it was a ‘privilege’ to assume the role and that she looked forward to approaching it with ‘energy, enthusiasm and positivity’.

While the appointment represents a welcome move towards increasing the diversity of the senior judiciary, it also highlights how slow England and Wales has been in elevating women to the top of the judicial ladder.

Dame Siobhan Keegan

Dame Siobhan Keegan

’Diversity must go hand in hand with inclusion. There’s no point having a diverse judiciary if people feel sidelined, not part of the real inner circle or uncomfortable’

Dame Siobhan Keegan

In September, Cardiff hosted the annual meeting of the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, which featured a healthy smattering of women chief justices from around the world. They included Dame Siobhan Keegan, who since 2021 has been lady chief justice of Northern Ireland; Margaret Ramsay-Hale, chief justice of the Cayman Islands; and Bibi Rehana Mungly-Gulbul, chief justice of Mauritius.

The three spoke to the Gazette about their careers, lingering sexism in the profession and wider society, and common issues faced by judges around the world. These included grappling with technology, tackling crime and domestic violence, and diverting people away from court.

The women can also be said to embody the different style and approach brought to the bench by women judges. This is demonstrated by the use of more empathetic language, and an awareness of the need to ensure the person before them in court feels ‘seen’ and listened to – especially if they are on the losing side or even face a prison sentence.

 Margaret Ramsay-Hale


Margaret Ramsay-Hale

As a student, Margaret Ramsay-Hale, 61, worked as a model and came third in the Miss Jamaica beauty pageant before training for the bar. Reluctant to take up judicial office – because she did not think that she ‘looked like a judge’ – Ramsay-Hale went on to become the first female judge of the Grand Court of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2011 and the islands’ first female chief justice in 2014. Last year she was appointed a chief justice for the second time, for the Cayman Islands.

Being the daughter of the ‘legendary’ Ian Ramsay QC, the first Jamaican lawyer to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel, gave her an almost innate understanding of the legal world. But it did not mean she had an easy ride.

Her first child was born three months before she was called to the bar in October 1991. By April 1995, she had three children under four and had been appointed to the bench.

‘I don’t think there is anything special about me, but I worked really hard,’ says Ramsay-Hale, who did not realise the sacrifices that she had made until it was pointed out to her years later.

Her judicial career began as a judge of the Family Court of Western Jamaica. Pregnant with her daughter, she worked until the Friday before her Monday delivery. Then, when her daughter was just three weeks old, she found that she had been rostered to sit in a court 144 miles away from her home in Kingston.

‘I didn’t feel entitled to say “I can’t do this”,’ she recalls. So she took the baby with her, where a nanny looked after the child in a hotel until Ramsay-Hale returned from court around 5.30pm.

Separation during the day meant that Ramsay-Hale could not feed her infant daughter and her baby was weaned at four weeks.

Looking back with a mix of sadness, guilt and incredulity, she says: ‘I am overwhelmed by my own inability to advocate for myself as a woman, overwhelmed that I ever put my career so front and centre, above the welfare of my children, and overwhelmed that nobody in that office considered that it was not appropriate to put me on the roster for that circuit because I had a three-week-old child.’

Women’s life experiences, she suggests, mean that they ‘judge’ differently to men. Women ‘see and hear things differently and have a different outlook and approach’, she insists.

‘Things that men grow up feeling entitled to, we’ve had to work for. We weren’t raised to expect recognition or promotion, but to work for them – and often work twice as hard as any man.’

While women also lead differently, she insists that men can learn the skills of ‘empathy, listening, inclusiveness and nurturing’ that come more naturally to women.

A brilliant intellect, she adds, does not make a good judge. Rather, the best judges have the most compassion and ability to deal with human issues – skills Ramsay-Hale says she developed sitting in the magistrates’ and family courts.

‘When a person leaves court, whatever the decision, it is important that they feel satisfied that they have been seen and heard,’ says Ramsay-Hale, who has even been thanked by defendants as she sent them to prison.

In criminal cases, she stresses, while you are dealing with the offence it is important to speak to and preserve the offender’s humanity – to restore it so they can rejoin society and break what is often a ‘generational cycle of crime’.

Ramsay-Hale is far from being a woolly liberal, it should be stressed. Working as Crown counsel for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, she successfully prosecuted offenders on capital charges.

But as chief magistrate of the Cayman Islands, she set up three pioneering courts to change the criminal justice paradigm away from incarceration for drug offenders, the mentally ill and defendants in domestic violence cases. She introduced a drug treatment and rehabilitation court, while diverting people away from jail where possible.

Ramsay-Hale’s father had determined that his daughter would follow him into the law by the time she was just seven. Telling her that she would be ‘educated with the elite’, he sent her to boarding school in England for her A-levels.

As it turned out she was staggered by the ignorance and bad behaviour of other girls. Some made monkey noises at her because of her Jamaican accent and thought that Trinidad was the capital of Jamaica.

She was also asked if her father ‘lived in a tree’ and whether her mother, who had been a concert pianist from Iceland, lived in an igloo.

Ramsay-Hale initially rebelled against her father’s plan, studying economics at the London School of Economics and pursuing a career in marketing for three years before turning to law.

In contrast to her experience at the LSE, which she ‘hated from the first hour’, her first law lecture at the University of the West Indies ‘felt like I’d come home’.

Now, as chief justice, she admits that she is in the office seven days a week and finds it hard to switch off. But she insists: ‘You mustn’t think I don’t enjoy my life.’

Dame Siobhan Keegan

Appointed in 2021, Dame Siobhan Keegan, 52, elected to style herself lady chief justice of Northern Ireland. Taking up the office, Keegan was struck by the interest from people, especially schoolgirls.

Her appointment, she says, was a ‘positive and an important day. You wonder when will we get to a time when it’s not remarkable for women to achieve these high offices’.

Two years on her role has been complicated by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. ‘Not having a devolved government is not good for justice,’ she adds. Keegan is keen to implement a non-ministerial departmental model for the courts in Northern Ireland, of the type that has operated in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland for a number of years.

In the meantime, she has offered to take on more responsibility but wants to see the politicians come back. Only they can secure more funding for the justice system and make progress on problem-solving initiatives such as in victim representation and broadcasting the courts.

While the secretary of state has been able to allocate the justice budget, she is concerned that the underfunded system will start to ‘affect lawyers fairly soon’.

She stresses: ‘Justice competes with health and education, but it is a public service that’s crucial to make sure that health and education work.’

Educated at the all-girl Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry, where her parents owned a grocery store, Keegan studied law at Queen’s University Belfast. Called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1994, she specialised in family and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 2006 before moving to the bench.

As a woman, Keegan says that she experienced ‘subtle and not direct’ prejudice rather than being overtly discriminated against. Echoing Ramsay-Hale, she says: ‘I kept my head down and worked really hard. It’s possible that I didn’t receive as much of a variety of work in practice, but the silver lining is that I decided to apply to the bench early to get wider experience.’

Keegan is concerned that young women lawyers today who have a similar experience, or ‘feel that something is not right’, may not speak out for fear of harming their career. She is committed to making it easier for them to do so.

With no women on the Court of Appeal and only one among 11 High Court judges, Keegan wants to see a better balance, as well as judges from more diverse social backgrounds and people with disabilities.

But she stresses: ‘Diversity must go hand in hand with inclusion. There’s no point having a diverse judiciary if people feel sidelined, not part of the real inner circle or uncomfortable’.

While Keegan is adamant that women must not be treated as a homogeneous group, like Ramsay-Hale she believes that they bring ‘different life experience’ to adjudication.

This, she says, may not affect the result, but rather the language used and how judgments are presented. Keegan notes that this is especially crucial in relation to the losing side.

How you present the message to the person who loses is part of the judicial discipline, she says. ‘You want them to feel that they have been listened to and that they understand the reason for the decision, so they can walk of court with dignity.’

Keegan is married to a barrister, who understands the nature and demands of her job: ‘You need what I call “quiet support” – the fact that there’s no complaint that you’re away a lot or that you’re not around to do things.’

She also finds it hard to relax, but enjoys horse racing and has ‘come round to the benefit of a holiday in the sun where you don’t do much apart from read novels, swim and worry about where you’re having dinner’.

Bibi Rehana Mungly-Gulbul

In the first press interview she has given, Bibi Rehana Mungly-Gulbul, 63, talks about her rise from a family with no background in law to become the first chief justice of Mauritius in 2021.

At a time when only five of the 80 barristers in Mauritius were women and the wider workforce was largely male-dominated, Mungly-Gulbul was attracted to law for ‘self-empowerment’ and the opportunities it offered.

Coming first in the national exams, she was awarded a scholarship by the Mauritian government to study law in the UK. She went to Sussex University and was called to the Bar of England and Wales by Middle Temple in 1983 – starting practice at the Mauritian bar in the same year.

After the bar and working as Crown counsel for the attorney general’s office, in 1988 she embarked on a judicial career, to which she felt better suited. ‘I find conflict resolution rewarding and enjoy the process of writing judgments,’ says Mungly-Gulbul, who is married to a barrister and has two children.

While she experienced sexism in the early stages of her career, she says it was ‘limited mainly to verbal remarks’.

Over the past 40 years, she notes, there has been a significant increase in the number of women lawyers and judges in Mauritius. Of 1,455 barristers and attorneys there, 633 (43.5%) are women as are 17 – a whopping 70% – of 24 Supreme Court judges.

This, she says with pride, has been achieved without any affirmative action but ‘as a result of their sheer determination, hard work and commitment’.

‘Men are becoming the rare species,’ says Mungly-Gulbul wryly, stating that the family courts, which require mixed-sex tribunals, can sometimes struggle to find a male judge.

But she adds: ‘There is still some stigmatisation on the part of the less informed segments of the population which nurture the unfounded perception that men can do better than women in certain jobs.’

In common with her colleagues, Mungly-Gulbul highlights the essential ‘human factor’ that is of the ‘utmost importance in the administration of justice’.

She says: ‘Justice is not only about legal philosophy and precepts. Above all it encompasses interaction with human beings with all their qualities, frailties, passions and values.’

Mungly-Gulbul enjoys yoga and nature walks. She believes that looking after one’s physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing allows a person better to take on the demands of a job, so the Supreme Court has a fitness centre offering gym facilities as well as yoga and meditation sessions for judges. Perhaps the RCJ should take note.


Catherine Baksi is a freelance journalist