Baroness Hale, Helen Mountfield, and Robert Spano in discussion at Mansfield College.
Image Credit: Eleanor Luxton

Baroness Hale visits Mansfield College

On 5th May, Baroness Brenda Hale, British judge and former President of the UK Supreme Court, joined Former President of the European Court of Human Rights Robert Spano to deliver a talk at Mansfield College on the subject of inclusive democracy and human rights. 

Predicated on the notion that “democracy values everyone equally, even if the majority does not”, the discussion – moderated by Mansfield Principal Helen Mountfield KC, an expert in human rights and equality law – challenged what we think of as democracy. 

Spano, currently a Visiting Fellow at Mansfield and Visiting Professor at the University’s Law faculty, was particularly scathing of politicians using “exclusive democracy to protect vested interests”.

He referenced the Daily Mail’s infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, published in November 2016, which included mugshots of three UK judges who ruled that the government would have to gain the consent of parliament before it could trigger Article 50. The front page was widely condemned for undermining the judiciary and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Nazi newspaper from 1936.

Emphasising that human rights law is there to “mitigate certain human tendencies” like the desire to “only respect similar viewpoints”, Spano said that “we’re at a 1938 moment”. Spano was, of course, referring to the first wave of Nazi expansionism, when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria, signalling a new era of authoritarianism.

This echoes the weakening of legislation that protects fundamental rights, including the recent threats to our right to protest, especially on the Coronation weekend.

Baroness Hale noted how her experience of marginalisation, as one of the “2.5% of women aged 18-21 who went to university” in the 1960s, was “helpful” in her career. Her favourite rulings include determining that the Home Office falsely imprisoned asylum seekers, and that domestic violence does not have to be physical to break the law.

An ardent supporter of women’s rights, Hale said that there is “still a long way to go with gender equality”. However, she has been instrumental in helping her successors prosper.

Helen Mountfield, during a speech in which she bestowed the honorary fellowship upon Hale, cited Brenda’s kindness and listening ear – a far cry from the patronising male judges Mountfield had dealt with previously.

She also mentioned how Hale provided a room for a female colleague, who had to return to court during maternity leave, to pump in.  Hale was certain that “difference makes for vitality” in the judiciary, workplace and society in general.

The Oxford Student spoke with Hale at a drinks reception to ask how she coped with being in rooms with people who might not have looked with her.

“Actually it was my height that was the biggest issue”, Hale remarked, recounting how she had been forced to stand on boxes to engage in conversations with her male peers.

Throughout the talk, Hale demonstrated that democracy was something which we must all try to protect from “rampant majoritarianism” and the exclusionary group identity fostered by nationalism.

Hale’s refusal to add her personal opinions to matters also spoke of a respect for legal professionalism that recognises how “the judicial role is sensitive, we’re not instigators of high policy, but we have a particular duty to uphold”.

Image credit: Eleanor Luxton

Image description: Baroness Hale, Helen Mountfield, and Robert Spano in discussion at Mansfield College.

This article was amended to correct a date from 1933 to 1936, and to remove a mention of inadequate maternity pay being changed 25 years ago.