Woman judge gets to highest legal rank

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A FEMALE judge has been promoted to one of the four most senior judicial posts in the country - the first time a woman has broken into the ranks of the judges' elite.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, appointed President of the Family Division of the High Court, has a ranking on a par with the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the Vice Chancellor. Only the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is more senior. Her appointment is recognised as a major achievement for a woman in a profession where few make it to high office.

Dame Elizabeth, 65, first came to public attention when she was universally praised for her stewardship of the Cleveland child abuse inquiry in 1987 and 1988. The Children Act 1989 implemented her recommendations and was aimed at ensuring that children could not be summarily removed from parents to "places of safety". Children, she has said, should not be removed from homes unless absolutely necessary, and are "entitled to respect and consideration".

She has also presided over a number of difficult family cases. Her rulings have included overriding the wishes of parents when their 15-year- old daughter, already a mother, sought an abortion. She also issued landmark guidelines in a case last year in which a woman was forced to have a caesarean delivery against her wishes, saying courts would no longer approve such surgery without a patient's consent.

Earlier this year she rose to public prominence because of her driving. Dame Elizabeth accepted driving lessons in lieu of prosecution following an accident in which a young nanny was injured. She was reported for careless driving when her Honda car allegedly pulled out of a junction and collided with a Ford Sierra carrying five people. Hampshire Police decided she would not be summonsed, fined or have her licence revoked if she consented to a driver improvement course.

A judge of 20 years, Dame Elizabeth was appointed to the Family Division of the High Court in 1979 and made a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1988. The Family Division, which she now heads, deals with divorce, disputes over children, adoption and wardship. There is no woman among the 12 Law Lords, and Dame Elizabeth is the only woman among 35 Court of Appeal judges. There are just seven women among the 97 High Court judges.

A mother of three, Dame Elizabeth is well-liked and highly regarded for her commonsense approach to family law. Although the Lord Chancellor was consulted on her appointment, it was not his decision. That fell to the four heads of division.

Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, has apologised to a Sikh lawyer after security doormen at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand refused him entry.

Anup Singh Chowdry, a senior partner of a London firm of solicitors, was told that he would not be allowed to enter the courts building while he wore a religious dagger, called a kirpan.