Rose Heilbron

Rose Heilbron

Dame Rose Heilbron, DBE, QC, (19 August 1914 - 8 December 2005) was one of the outstanding defence barristers of the post-war period in the UK, whose career included many 'firsts' for a woman - she was the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray's Inn, the first woman to be appointed King's Counsel, the first to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey and the first woman Treasurer of Gray's Inn.

Early life

Heilbron was born in Liverpool, the daughter of Jewish hotelier Max Heilbron. She attended The Belvedere School and Liverpool University, where she became one of the first two women to gain a first class honours degree in law, in 1935. She was awarded the Lord Justice Holker scholarship at Gray's Inn in 1936, and she became one of only two women to hold a master of laws degree in 1937. Two years later she was called to the bar, joining the Northern Circuit.


In 1945, she married the Dublin-born Dr Nathaniel Burstein, whom she had met at court. He became a consultant at a Liverpool hospital, and there is little doubt that the availability of medical knowledge was a great help to her in some cases.

By 1946, Heilbron had appeared in 10 murder trials, and in 1949, she was one of the first two female King's Counsel to serve at the English Bar (the other was Helena Normanton)). She became something of a household name, especially in her home city, when, in 1949-50, she became the first woman to lead in an English murder case, when she defended the gangster George Kelly, accused of shooting dead the deputy manager of the Cameo cinema in Liverpool, whoch became know as The Cameo Murder. He is reputed to have said he wasn't "having a Judy defend him", but he later praised her for her painstaking defence, which also led to her being named the "Daily Mirror"'s "Woman of the Year". She was unable to save Kelly from the gallows, but the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction as unsafe in 2003.

Heilbron's successes in the first half of the 1950s included the defence of four men accused of hanging a boy during a burglary (she was able to show the death had been an accident) and of Louis Bloom, a solicitor from Hartlepool who was accused of murdering his mistress in his office. With a series of high-profile trials, Dame Rose became something of celebrity, and her exploits were reported as news: attending a Bar conference in the U.S., taking the salute as honorary Colonel of the East Lancashire Battalion of the WRAC, or becoming the first woman in Liverpool to wear a calf-length evening dress.

Heilbron was appointed as Recorder for Burnley in November 1956, the first appointment of a woman as Recorder, although not the first time one had sat. In 1957, she was the first woman to sit as a Commissioner of Assize. Although Elizabeth Lane was appointed the first female judge in the County Court in 1962 and of the High Court in 1965, Heilbron was appointed as the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey on 4 January 1972. She became leader of the Northern Circuit in 1973 but then followed Lane as the second woman High Court judge in 1974. She was assigned to the Family Division, and created a DBE.

Heilbron chaired a committee to consider reform of rape laws in 1975. The committee's subsequent report recommended that the identity of rape complainants should be kept secret, and that the defence should be limited in its ability to cross-examine the complainant about their sexual history in an effort to attack their character. In 1976, she was made an honorary fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where her daughter (Hilary Nora Burstein Heilbron, born 1949, who herself became a QC in 1987) had been educated.

Heilbron was presiding judge of the Northern Circult from 1979 to 1982, and was Treasurer of Gray's Inn in 1985. She retired from judicial office in 1988.

It has been said that Heilbron's rapid rise benefited from the fact that so many men were in the armed forces during her first six years as a barrister. Without the Second World War, there is little doubt that she would have had greater difficulty with the prejudices endemic in the legal profession at that time; but her continued rapid rise once the war ended were evidence of her skill, dedication and hard work. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a man with her record would have achieved judicial office earlier, and would have been promoted to the Court of Appeal.

Her hobbies included golf and walking, and she was a keen member of Soroptimist, the worldwide organisation for women in management and professions, working to advance human rights and the status of women.


* [ Obituary] ("The Telegraph", 10 December 2005)
* [,,60-1922438,00.html Obituary] ("The Times", December 13, 2005)
* [,,1665885,00.html Obituary] ("The Guardian", 13 December 2005)

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