One of England and Wales’s highest profile solicitors is to chair the public inquiry into historic child abuse, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced today. 

Fiona Woolf CBE JP, admitted in 1973, is current Lord Mayor of the City of London and a past president of the Law Society. She began her career at magic circle firm Clifford Chance before moving to City firm CMS Cameron McKenna where she became a partner in 1981. 

The inquiry will consider ‘whether and the extent to which public bodies and other important institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse’, the Home Office said. ‘It will seek to address public concern over failings exposed by successive appalling cases of organised and persistent child sex abuse both historical and more recent.’

Woolf will be assisted by Graham Wilmer MBE, a child sexual abuse victim and founder of the Lantern Project and Barbara Hearn OBE, the former deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Ben Emmerson QC will serve as counsel to the inquiry, the Home Office said. 

The first appointee to the high-profile inquiry was retired judge Lady Butler-Sloss. She stepped down in June after coming under political pressure because of her late brother’s position as attorney general in the 1980s. 

Woolf said: ‘Ensuring lessons are learned from the mistakes which have been made in the past and resulted in children being subjected to the most horrific crimes is a vital and solemn undertaking. I was honoured to be approached to lead such an important inquiry, and look forward to working with the panel to ensure these mistakes are identified and never repeated.’

Law Society president Andrew Caplen welcomed the announcement, saying of Woolf: 'She was an exceptional president and is sure to conduct the inquiry with vigour and integrity.'