Britain's first law lady argues the case for gay marriage rights

Britain's first law lady revealed herself yesterday to be a "softline feminist'' who supports legal recognition for gay partnerships.

Speaking publicly for the first time since her appointment as the first woman to sit in the final court of appeal, Lady Hale said she favoured "equality between the sexes'' but did not hold hardline feminist views.

After 600 years of male exclusivity, her presence among the 12 most senior judges in the country will almost certainly lead to a period of adjustment. Lady Hale said her experience as a judge in the Court of Appeal and the High Court had shown that most of her colleagues were rather "nonplussed'' by women. She told a gathering of journalists: "They tend to be of an age and background where they have rarely had a woman in equal charge as opposed to their secretary or clerk.''

Her feminist views on the judiciary include opposition to the wearing of wigs in court because the wigs were made for men. She said: "It seems to me strange that lawyers and judges are so puzzled that the general public think of them as old men when they dress as old men''.

Lady Hale said she could not call herself a hardline feminist because she recognised that, in many ways, women "lead different lives'' to those of men. She also denied media reports that she was an opponent of marriage, saying that the institution upheld important values in society. "I'm not an opponent of marriage and have never recommended the abolition of marriage," she said. "I once raised for debate the question as to what purpose the legal institution of marriage served but never suggested it was not a useful purpose.''

Instead she said she now wanted to extend some of the purposes of marriage to gay couples, "My present view is that there is a strong case for introducing a legal commitment between people who are unable to marry, principally gay and lesbian partners.''

But at the same time she questioned the Government's wisdom in introducing laws that allow gays and lesbian couples to adopt children before giving these relationships proper legal status.

Lady Hale's promotion to the law lords, where at 58 she will be the youngest of the 12 judges, comes at a cost to the Court of Appeal. Less than 10 per cent of the senior judiciary are women and only three are eligible to sit in the Court of Appeal. She takes up her post in January.