Centuries-long wait over as first woman is appointed Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales

Chosen from an all-female shortlist, Dame Sue Carr will become first woman to head the judiciary in 755 years

The first female chief justice of England and Wales has been announced by King Charles, ending a 755-year wait for the first woman to hold the post.

Dame Sue Carr, a Lady Justice of Appeal, will succeed Lord Burnett in the role in October 2023. She will assume the role just 20 years after taking silk in 2003, having become a High Court judge a decade ago.

Carr, 58, was chosen from an all-female shortlist, including Dame Victoria Sharp, 67, the King’s Bench Division president. She resigned as the senior Judicial Commissioner on the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) in January to apply for the post. 

She was appointed following the recommendation of a selection panel which included Helen Pitcher, chair of the JAC, Supreme Court justice Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Justice Edis, and two other JAC members. 

News of her appointment has been accompanied by speculation over the title she will adopt when she assumes the position, given that she is the first woman to hold the post, and was officially unveiled as Lord Chief Justice.

“Let’s hope we will be able to call her ‘Lady Chief Justice’ soon,” Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First Hundred Years campaign, wrote in a LinkedIn post. “In the meantime, let’s enjoy this historic first for women in law.” 

A judicial source told The Guardian any decision or change to the title “will be not made in haste and are for a later date”.

Carr will be expected to serve at least four years in post, during which she will lead ongoing courts modernisation, a process delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She does so at a time when the resources of the civil and criminal courts are severely stretched thanks, in part, to government underfunding – a process acknowledged by Burnett in a valedictory appearance before the House of Lords. 

Carr’s elevation follows an impressive career at the Bar and the Bench. Appointed as a recorder and a part-time criminal judge in 2009, she joined the High Court in 2013, sitting in the Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court (TCC) from 2014 onwards. 

She was the first female High Court judge to sit in the TCC and only the second woman to sit in the Commercial Court. She was also a criminal appellate judge, ultimately serving as the presiding judge of the Midlands Circuit from 2016 to 2020, the most extensive set of courts outside London.

Carr’s rise to the Court of Appeal saw her take up civil appellate duties alongside judicial appointments work, having been previously active in magistrates and judicial training and tribunal roles supervising investigatory powers. 

As a barrister, Carr was one of the standout practitioners of her generation, practising at 4 New Square, where she became head of chambers. Her former set said: “This is a tremendous achievement. We wish her every success in a richly deserved and historic appointment.”

The doyenne of the professional negligence Bar, her practice spanned surveyors to solicitors and accountants to architects. She is an expert in professional liability claims, with her range of work extending to group claims, alongside an active regulatory practice at tribunal and appellate level. 

She held leadership roles with the Bar Standards Board on conduct, and with education and training at her Inn – Inner Temple – where she is a governing Bencher. She became president of the Professional Negligence Bar Association in 2022.

Carr is not the first woman appointed to lead the judiciary in the UK; Northern Ireland’s Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan DBE, was appointed in September 2021. 

The Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk KC, and the chair of the Bar Council, Nick Vineall KC, welcomed her appointment. Vineall said: “We very much look forward to working with her on the many challenges facing the courts and wider justice sector,” while thanking Burnett, who will retire in September, “for his close engagement with the Bar throughout his tenure.”

Law Society president Lubna Shuja said: “This is a historic moment, and I hope it will lead to further progress on women’s representation within the judiciary.”

She added: “Only around a third of judges in our courts are women, with even fewer in the senior judiciary. We need to see this improve. This momentous appointment is a sign that times are changing.”

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