Judge Angelica Mitchell

Family lawyer and circuit judge
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Angelica Elizabeth Mitchell, judge: born London 21 August 1948; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1972; an Assistant Recorder 1992-95, a Recorder 1995-98; a Circuit Judge 1998-2006; married 1981 Nicholas Browne (two daughters); died London 7 February 2006.

Angelica Mitchell was one of a new breed of women whose example and insistence attracted others to join her in feminising the male-dominated higher reaches of the English law. A family lawyer in every sense, she was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn in 1972 in an intake that included Helena Kennedy, Madeleine Colvin, Heather Hallett and others all now, like her, at the top of different strands of the profession.

It wasn't that they hunted as a pack, but that through sheer force of personality Mitchell and the others broke through the system. In short, they were noticed. Mitchell was unmissable in those early days, her regulation black attire relieved with a bright boa around her neck.

She was born in Roehampton, south-west London, in 1948. Her father, Sir George Mitchell, was a draftsman in the Lord Advocate's Department and later became Legal Secretary to the Lord Advocate and First Parliamentary Draftsman for Scotland. Her mother, Elizabeth (née Leigh Pemberton), was also a lawyer and sat on employment tribunals. Both were committed socialists. Angelica's early involvement with CND and Brook Advisory flowed from them, and brought her to the Bar with a radical confidence that inspired her contemporaries.

From the very outset Angelica Mitchell made friends, from the usher at the court-room door to the clerk at the desk beneath the judge, and the judge himself. During the closing weeks of her illness, her bedside visitors ranged from the Lord Chancellor through the Court of Appeal to circuit judges from all over Britain. She had a vast capacity for friendship, friends that extended far beyond the Bar. She indulged them with regular calls, she knew everything about them that was fit to print and far more that wasn't. She had a rare intuition, she listened. Her insights into peoples' lives were acute, her counsel was true, her gossip irresistible.

In many ways, it was this that made her an exceptional lawyer. It wasn't that she had an exceptional legal mind, but that she had a remarkable understanding of family dynamics, of children's needs and of the problems that beset family life. She used her access to the courts wisely, particularly on behalf of the many women clients who came to her for help.

When she was picked in 1998 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to become a circuit judge, and subsequently by Irvine's successor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, to sit in that capacity in the Family Division of the High Court, she was at the forefront of a move to increase the number of younger women judges. Mitchell used her position to persuade others in her peer group to follow her on to the bench. But for her illness, she would certainly have gone further. She was elected a Bencher of Gray's Inn in 2005.

Although the law was dear to her, Mitchell's true love was the arts. She devoured two or three books a week. If you wanted to know about the latest Anita Brookner or Julian Barnes, she would have read it. She loved opera - Otello, La bohème, Così fan tutte. She was a director of the Hampstead Theatre from 1999 and saw 30 or 40 plays a year. There were many actors and directors amongst her friends. She had one of the widest intellects I have known. She sat on the board of the Noel Buxton Trust, advising on grants to voluntary projects involving prisons, prisoners and their families. She was a founder in 1992 of the Who Cares? Trust for children in care.

Angelica Mitchell bore her cancer with great courage. In the closing days of her life, her beloved husband, Nicholas Browne QC, became a judge, completing a family triptych in which Angelica, her husband, and her brother, Fergus, were all English circuit judges. Marianna Hildyard QC, the Lord Chancellor's wife and a close friend and fellow family lawyer with Angelica, staged a party for them in amongst the Pugin wallpaper of the Lord Chancellor's private apartments.

It was a strangely medieval backdrop to so modern an achievement. For here was a woman judge who had made it that much more normal, that much easier, for other women to follow her.

Jon Snow