From Silk to Leadership: Dame Sue Carr’s Remarkable Journey to Chief Justice
An historic occasion has taken place in the United Kingdom, marking a significant milestone for women in law. King Charles has announced the appointment of the first female chief justice of England and Wales, ending a 755-year wait for a woman to hold the position.
Dame Sue Carr, a distinguished Lady Justice of Appeal, will succeed Lord Burnett in the role starting October 2023. Remarkably, she achieves this honor merely 20 years after being called to the Bar in 2003, and she became a High Court judge a decade ago.
Carr, who is 58 years old, emerged as the chosen candidate from an exclusively female shortlist, which included Dame Victoria Sharp, the President of the King’s Bench Division. Dame Carr resigned from her senior position as the Judicial Commissioner on the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) in January.
Her appointment comes following the recommendation of a selection panel comprised of eminent individuals such as Helen Pitcher, the Chair of the JAC, Supreme Court Justice Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Justice Edis, and two other esteemed members of the JAC.
While news of her appointment is celebrated, there has been speculation about the title she will adopt upon assuming the position. Being the first woman to hold this office, there is curiosity surrounding whether she will retain the traditional title of Lord Chief Justice or adopt an alternative designation.
Dana Denis-Smith, the founder of the First Hundred Years campaign, expressed hope in a LinkedIn post, stating, “Let’s hope we will be able to call her ‘Lady Chief Justice’ soon. In the meantime, let’s enjoy this historic first for women in law.”
According to a judicial source cited by The Guardian, any decision or change regarding the title will not be made hastily but will be considered at a later date.
Carr’s tenure as chief justice will encompass a minimum of four years, during which she will spearhead the ongoing modernization of the courts, a process that has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She assumes her role at a time when the resources of civil and criminal courts are under significant strain, partly due to government underfunding—an issue acknowledged by Lord Burnett in his valedictory appearance before the House of Lords.
Carr’s elevation to the Court of Appeal is the culmination of an impressive career at the Bar and on the Bench. She was appointed as a recorder and part-time criminal judge in 2009 and joined the High Court in 2013, presiding over the Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court (TCC) from 2014 onwards.
First Female High Court Judge
Notably, she was the first female High Court judge to sit in the TCC and only the second woman to sit in the Commercial Court. Carr also served as a criminal appellate judge and held the position of presiding judge of the Midlands Circuit from 2016 to 2020, which encompasses a significant number of courts outside London.
In addition to her civil appellate duties at the Court of Appeal, Carr has been actively involved in judicial appointments work, as well as holding positions in magistrates and judicial training and supervising investigatory powers in tribunal roles.
During her time as a barrister at 4 New Square, Carr emerged as one of the standout practitioners of her generation, specializing in professional negligence cases involving surveyors, solicitors, accountants, and architects. She possesses expertise in professional liability claims, including group claims, and has an active regulatory practice at tribunal and appellate levels.
She has also held leadership positions with the Bar Standards Board, focusing on conduct, and has been involved in education and training at Inner Temple, where she is a governing Bencher. In 2022, she became the president of the Professional Negligence Bar Association.
While Carr is not the first woman appointed to lead the judiciary in the UK—Northern Ireland’s Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan DBE assumed the role in September 2021—her appointment has been welcomed by the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk KC, and the chair of the Bar Council, Nick Vineall KC. Vineall expressed anticipation in working with Carr to address the numerous challenges facing the courts and the broader justice sector. He also extended gratitude to Lord Burnett, who will retire in September, for his close collaboration with the Bar throughout his tenure.
Lubna Shuja, the president of the Law Society, hailed this moment as historic and expressed hope that it would lead to further progress in women’s representation within the judiciary.
Shuja emphasized the need for improvement as currently only around a third of judges in the courts are women, with even fewer in senior judicial positions. This significant appointment serves as a testament to the changing times.
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