This Day in Jewish History / British Barrister Breaks Glass Ceiling

After more than 20 years as a celebrated defense attorney in England, on this day Rose Heilbron was the first woman appointed judge on a prestigious court, one of many glass ceilings she broke through.

David Green
David B. Green
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On January 4, 1972, Rose Heilbron was appointed a judge at the Old Bailey, the first woman to sit at the prestigious Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. It was one of a number of glass ceilings broken by the Jewish barrister (courtroom lawyer) from Liverpool: the first woman to be appointed a King’s Counsel (a senior barrister, based on merit), the first to be a Recorder (part-time judge), the first female Treasurer of Gray’s Inn (the elected head barrister of one of London’s four Inns of Law), among distinctions.

Rose Heilbron was born August 19, 1914, the daughter of Max and Nellie. Her father ran a boarding house for immigrant refugees and later a small hotel. Rose received her law degree at Liverpool University in 1935 and two years later joined the Northern Circuit of the bar.

As a female criminal defense attorney, Heilbron, who married physician Nathaniel Burstein in 1945, became something of a celebrity in England, with much made of the fees she took and the cost of her house, said to be “over 5,000 pounds” sterling. Her early years in the profession coincided with World War II, and some colleagues said that her career took off because all the male attorneys were at war. But she continued to distinguish herself when the men came home: As one observer told The Guardian at the time of Heilbron’s death, in 2005: “She got up there by sheer hard work and cleverness.”  In 1949, she became one of the first two women named a King’s Counsel at the English Bar.

In 1949-50, Heilbron defended the notorious George Kelly, who had been accused of shooting to death the deputy manager of Liverpool’s Cameo cinema. Kelly supposedly said he wasn’t prepared to have “a Judy defend [him],” but in fact she took his case through five different courts, and found herself named Woman of the Year by the Daily Mirror. Kelly, however, went to the gallows in 1950 – only to have his conviction posthumously quashed by an appeals court in 2003.     

Other notable cases for Heilbron in the 1950s included the successful defense of four men accused of hanging a boy during a robbery – she proved that his death was an accident – and of a solicitor charged with the murder of his lover. 

Heilbron’s career as a judge began in 1956, when she first sat as a Recorder, but it was not until this day in 1972 that she was appointed the first female judge at the Old Bailey; two years later, she was the second woman to be named a High Court judge. In 1981, she presided over the “handless corpse” trial, in which an Australian drug kingpin, Alexander Sinclair, was found guilty of the murder of a victim whose body was found in a flooded Lancashire quarry, and was initially unidentifiable because his hands had been cut off. So expensive was the prosecution of the case, which spanned the globe, and so lengthy the trial, that Heilbron ordered Sinclair to pay 1 million pounds toward the costs of his own prosecution, seeing that she had been told his net worth was 25 million pounds, “give or take a million or two.” She also chaired a group that oversaw the reform of the rape laws, changes that included protecting the identity of complainants and that limited the freedom of defense attorneys to question victims about their sexual history.

Rose Heilbron retired from the bench in 1988, and she died on December 8, 2005, at the age of 91.

As a female criminal defense attorney, Dame Rose Heilbron became something of a celebrity in England.Credit: Bloomberg
Rose Heilbron: The Story of England's First Woman Queen's Counsel and Judge.Credit: Book Depository