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Law: Woman of luck and judgment: Dawn Freedman tells Sharon Wallach how she became one of the few female circuit judges (CORRECTED)


AT 37, Dawn Freedman was the youngest person to have been appointed a stipendiary magistrate. Now aged 50, she holds the further distinction of being one of only 24 female circuit judges out of 487.

Judge Freedman has worked at Harrow Crown Court since it opened in July 1991. Its upper floors are not so much judicial arena in style as hotel corridor. The theme of soft, green carpet and mahogany tints is repeated in the judge's office. That made it an indifferent setting for a photograph, so the discovery that the legal ban on photographs within a court's precincts includes its office areas - which came as a surprise to judge, chief clerk and journalist alike - was not a major blow.

Dawn Freedman, who is married to a solicitor, chose the law because she liked acting and debating. 'I was the four-year-old who stood on tables and said poems,' she says. 'I didn't know any barristers or solicitors, no one was pulling strings for me. There was no law at A-level then, and until university, I didn't know what the study of law was about.'

In 1966 her tutor at University College London introduced her to a set of chambers where she did the first six months of pupillage. For the second she moved on to the chambers of John Mortimer QC (of Rumpole fame), where her pupil master was Peter Hopkin Morgan QC, who became a judge. She worked in family law. 'In those days that was what women were thought to be able to cope with.'

It was particularly difficult for women to find tenancies - many chambers restricted their numbers, unofficially or otherwise. Judge Freedman ascribes her success purely to good fortune.

As a newly qualified barrister, she was also fortunate. She was kept busy initially with family cases in magistrates' courts. It helped that her chambers were well known and had a lot of work.

The fact that the chambers were used by Mortimer as a basis for Rumpole was incidental. No real person showed up in the series, Judge Freedman says, although there were the occasional lines remembered from chambers meetings.

After 10 years in practice, she and seven contemporaries from university set up their own chambers in Gray's Inn. It was from there that Dawn Freedman's judicial career began, when she 'trickled' into the job of stipendiary magistrate.

'It was so easy. Someone in my set said: 'You're always talking about it, why not apply?' ' She did. Shortly afterwards found herself sitting as a deputy at Marylebone magistrates' court. 'That was how they tested you in those days. There was no training, you were literally told to go and sit one day.' (A modern stipendiary undergoes a lengthy induction course and regular refresher seminars.)

'I heard nothing for two years, then I was asked to do a couple more sessions, and later had a call from the Clerk to Commissions to sound me out. They don't offer you a post until they are sure you will say yes.'

She had always wanted to be a 'stipe'. 'From the first time I went into a magistrates' court I loved the hubbub. It's exciting and fresh.'

Stipendiary magistrates have a powerful role. The adrenalin flows as they make decisions and set patterns for future cases. Fascinating points of law can emerge from the most mundane rates enforcement or motoring cases.

Initially, she missed the atmosphere of chambers and 'being in the forum'. 'But it had its compensations in terms of not having to drag round far-flung courts carrying heavy books.'

She had never considered going further along the career path to become a judge. 'If I thought about it at all, it seemed like a rotten job. I had always said I would refuse, but when I was asked to sit as an assistant recorder, I thought 'never is a long time', and that if I said no and became disillusioned with being a stipe in five years' time, I would not get another chance.' A similar thought process accompanied her appointment as a recorder, and her resolve was tested again when asked to join the Parole Board.

Judges are treated as minor royalty by court staff. Waiting to see Dawn Freedman, I received frequent updates: 'the court is rising', 'the judge will be here soon', 'she's just coming'. The judge is unconscious of this reverential treatment, although 'I am aware that I never have to carry anything, or open doors for myself'. Indeed, she is refreshingly unpompous, preferring to lead her visitor out of the building after the interview, rather than calling up the security troops.

It is important, she believes, to carry this demeanour over into the courtroom. 'A judge should talk to a jury on equal terms so that they understand what is going on and are not in awe of him or her.' Laughter does not go amiss and she believes in injecting humour where possible.

None the less, she believes in the power of the wig - even though, or perhaps because, it adds 10 years to the wearer. 'It seems that people like to know what your role is. They like to know that the one in the mauve gown is the judge and those in black robes are counsel.'

The role of judges is sometimes misunderstood, she believes. 'People think of them as referees who sum up at the end of a case,' she says. 'But it's much more, it's constant decision-making. A judge is very much in control of what's going on and must also think ahead to see the possible hazards.'

The decisions can be out of the ordinary. Recently, Judge Freedman sat in a case in which a man was accused of actual bodily harm (he was pleading self-defence). His counsel objected to one of the jurors, who was blind, on the grounds that much of the evidence consisted of photographs and the case would largely turn on the extent of the victim's injuries. The judge turned down the objection, believing that the juror would be able to assess the defendant's demeanour in her own way. (The defendant was acquitted.)

The incident was the cause of some satisfaction to Judge Freedman: 'Now blind people know they are not barred from jury service.'

The attributes of a good judge, she says, include fairness and the ability to sit back and listen. Does she believe that women should be appointed to the bench in greater numbers?

'It's important to have as wide a mix as possible, but it's equally important not to have positive discrimination. For one thing, the people brought before you would have no respect if you had been appointed to fulfil some sort of quota. The fault for the low numbers lies not with the Lord Chancellor's Department for not appointing them, but with the time 20 years ago when women were not allowed to have seats in chambers.' Given time, she believes, more women will come through.


APOLOGIES to the chief clerk at Harrow Crown Court, Ronald Sargent, for our unjust accusation last week, when we inaccurately said that he was not fully aware of the regulations concerning photography within the precincts of a court.

(Photograph omitted)