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The UK Supreme Court head who delivered historic ruling with spider's lethal bite

LONDON (Reuters) - Even before she delivered the momentous decision that crushed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament, Supreme Court president Lady Brenda Hale had brought a blast of fresh air to Britain’s stuffy and male-dominated institutions.

Head of Supreme Court of the United Kingdom Lady Brenda Hale announces ruling, that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful, ahead of Brexit, at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in London, Britain September 24, 2019, in this still image taken from Supreme Court/Parliament TV footage. Supreme Court/Parliament TV via Reuters

After she read out the court’s ruling on live television on Tuesday morning, Hale was being lauded as fashion and feminist icon - due in part to the huge spider brooch that adorned her trim black outfit.

“The Beyonce of the legal world...stole the show with her spider brooch,” said the Daily Mirror.

The Guardian suggested the brooch may have given a clue to which way the ruling was going to go.

“Wearing a spider to deliver news that trapped the prime minister felt pointed,” it said.

The brooch is one in a collection which Hale sports in court that also includes a frog, a fox and a centipede.

But as a very modern women, she might not welcome the attention on how she dresses and would rather the focus was on how she runs the United Kingdom’s highest judicial body.

The Supreme Court has only been in existence since 2009. Never in its short history had it weighed such a momentous case. And never had Britons been treated to so many modern trappings at a core establishment institution.

Unlike other British courts, Hale and her fellow judges do not wear wigs nor do they sit in an elevated position.

While TV cameras are barred from nearly all other tribunals, the Supreme Court’s live stream on the first day of the hearing was accessed on its website more than 4 million times.

Thrust into the Brexit maelstrom, Hale insisted her court was determining points of law, not politics.

“I must repeat that this case is not about when or on what terms the United Kingdom leaves the European Union,” she told the court as hearings finished last Thursday.

On Tuesday, it ruled that Johnson had acted unlawfully by asking Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament for five weeks in order, as his foes allege, to sidestep opposition to his plan to take Britain out of the European Union with or without a deal by Oct. 31.

Reading out the ruling in a clear, unwavering voice, Hale offered not a shred of comfort to the beleaguered prime minister.

“No justification for taking action with such an extreme effect has been put before the court, she said. “....the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect.”


Hale, 74, became Supreme Court president two years ago and is emblematic of its modern face.

Unlike most contemporaries, she was brought up in northern England and educated at a state school, was an academic lawyer specialising in family and welfare issues, and spent most of her career as a pioneer in her field.

She became a High Court judge in 1994 and Britain’s first female law lord in 2004 - until recently the top court’s only woman. Last year, she made a brief appearance on a TV cooking show MasterChef.

In a speech in May at Girton College, Cambridge, which she attended in the 1960s, graduating top of her class, she said a former senior judge had described her in his diaries as “a formidable, vigorous person with a strong agenda of her own”.

“What is this ‘Brenda agenda’ and why should voicing it arouse such feelings? It is, quite simply, the belief that women are equal to men and should enjoy the same rights and freedoms that they do,” she said.

“So why is that ‘an agenda’? Quite simply, because we have not yet achieved the equality we seek in the law, let alone in life.”

Not shy about promoting equal rights for women and greater diversity in the judiciary, Hale’s reforms of divorce and child law have led to her being singled out.

“The Marriage Wrecker”, one Daily Mail columnist described her as in a 2003 article, criticising her views on gay partnerships, heterosexual cohabitation and divorce.


As well as having a huge impact on how Brexit plays out with the Oct. 31 divorce deadline looming, the court’s ruling will also be pivotal in determining the future balance of power between Britain’s government and parliament.

Brexit-supporter Johnson, a former London mayor known for his mop of blond hair and bombastic rhetoric, advised the 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth on Aug. 28 to prorogue - UK parlance for suspend - parliament.

The shutdown came into effect on Sept. 10 amid chaotic protests by opposition lawmakers in the lower House of Commons on the banks of London’s River Thames.

Sifting through legal precedence from cases and laws dating back hundreds of years, Johnson’s team argued judges should not interfere in politics and limit the prime minister’s use of prerogative powers - functions he carries out in the monarch’s name.

When the courts in 2016 last trod into matters of such constitutional significance - whether the government needed parliament’s approval before triggering the formal EU divorce process - they drew the ire of Brexit-supporting newspapers.

“Enemies of the People,” said the Daily Mail headline above a photograph of three senior High Court judges after they ruled parliament’s approval was needed.

This time, it was Lady Hale - and her brooch - that lit up social media.

Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan