A woman is “emotionally unsuitable for court work”. This was possibly the remark which drove me. It was 1972. I was 23 years old with an honours degree in law and I had joined a large and prestigious legal firm in Glasgow as an apprentice. Young, shy and insecure, I was equally determined. One of the senior partners clearly thought that women in the legal profession were anathema. Women, if they had to be endured, were for the ‘soft end’ of the law, as some saw it – divorce and family disputes. My response was to prove him wrong.
The law is in my blood. My grandfather was an extraordinary individual whose story had a huge influence on me. He literally risked his life in the pursuit of justice. Italian, he was a lawyer in Naples during the rise of Mussolini. He was a principled man. He resisted the bullying and intimidation of the politics of the time, standing out, very publicly, against fascism. He refused to join “the party” as a result of which my mother, his only child, was not permitted to attend school because of his views. Despite that she was educated at home and attained university entrance standard. She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps, studying law in Italy, but the war intervened and like so many of that generation her dreams were shattered. One of her greatest gifts to me was to instil in me principles of honesty and integrity.
In 1946 she met my father. He was a Scottish soldier, a bomb disposal expert serving in the British army. He remained in Italy after the war to assist in the removal of munitions. They fell in love, married in the same year and he brought her back to his home in Scotland, along with my Italian grandmother. Sadly my father’s family refused to accept an Italian into the household and so we moved to Lanarkshire where I was brought up. In those days it was not the most progressive of places. In the late 1950’s and 60’s, women, especially Roman Catholic women, were not expected to reach University. Finding a suitable husband, marrying and raising a family was the height of ambition for many. Not that I am in any way denigrating such a path, far from it but the notion of a woman having a career was not a popularly held view. A number of my female contemporaries did secure careers but I saw how much of a struggle it was for them to manage maintaining the work/family balance. They were however the exception. How much talent did we lose through society’s failure to recognise the value of women? We may have had the vote – albeit in a limited form since 1919 – but the Equal Pay Act did not come into effect until 1976. There continue to be struggles in that area.
My grandfather was my inspiration. He fought for justice and could well have died for it under the intolerance of fascism. I have his law degree, date 23 May 1889, from the University of Naples hanging on my study wall. My ambition was to have my own law degree hanging next to his and nothing would stand in my way. My parents were absolutely behind me providing me with confidence and encouragement. My mother continued to provide the inspiration. My parents were not well off but they did all they could to support me, with the help of a small bursary.
Graduating in 1972 I started my apprenticeship and I did learn a lot there, especially as an assistant in their court department, but the opportunities to appear in the court room were rare. So I left when offered a position which involved doing criminal work with Ross Harper and Murphy, probably, at that time, the busiest and one of the most rapidly expanding firms in Scotland. It had a dynamic senior partner who courted publicity. In his view the name “Rita Rae” was catchy and could attract publicity. I think that the fact that I was female and therefore an unusual entity in a male dominated world had an influence in his promoting me. I did work very hard however and within a year I was offered a partnership, running an extremely busy court department. By this time, aged 27, I was responsible for putting 10-15 lawyers into court each day as well as appearing in court myself and supervising the staff and the administration of the department. I was, at this time, the only female doing criminal work in Glasgow on a full time basis. Once clients realised that you actually knew what you were doing it was relatively easy to win them over, but not so easy to win over fellow members of the profession. You were always the “wee lassie.”
I became involved in the Glasgow Bar Association and served as their secretary. That certainly helped, at least to be acknowledged, if not entirely accepted. However appearing in the lower courts and running a busy office was still not where I wanted to be. The bar was the next step and in 1981 I left a secure position to follow my real dream - becoming a member of the Faculty of Advocates, which at that time, 1982, held exclusive rights of audience in the highest courts in Scotland. I was, I have to admit, terrified!
Criminal work followed me although many solicitors felt that clients would not accept a female advocate except possibly in rape cases and unashamedly, one told me so. Another hurdle presented itself. There were not many women at the bar at that time, only 13 out of a bar of 147 members. The expectation was that, as before, they would do, principally, family work, divorces etc. Having said that, a number of the female advocates at the bar at the same time as me have achieved great things. However it was only in 1996 that the first female Senator of the College of Justice, Lady Cosgrove, was appointed, having served as a temporary Judge since 1992. The situation has improved, but even today, little more than a quarter of the senior bench is female.
The attitude of some male lawyers was infuriating. I remember one very prominent advocate referring to female advocates as “advocettes”. Some years later, on the first occasion he appeared before me when I was on the bench, I permitted myself a wry smile. I did some family type work but luck, I believe, played a part and I was regularly instructed in the High Court of Justiciary including some high profile criminal cases. One of those, colloquially known as the “ice cream war trial”, took place in 1984. It was a murder trial where 6 people had died as a result of a deliberate fire raising. I was the leading counsel for one of the six accused involved in allegations of related attempted murders and shootings.
The years which followed were exciting and rewarding. I was awarded silk early and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1992. The career blossomed with some interesting cases including an opportunity to appear in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I was asked to be a temporary sheriff in 1987 doing part time judicial work throughout Scotland. Ten years later I became a full time sheriff in Glasgow and in 1998 the Chair of the Scottish Law Commission asked me to speak about the Children’s Hearing System at an international conference in Ottawa. That opportunity sparked an interest child protection cases and I established a link with the University of Glasgow’s Department of Continuing Education where, over a period of years (1998 - 2012), I gave a series of talks at pre-service and in-service training events of children’s panel members on the role of the court in child protection.
To be honest I thought that was it. I had reached the pinnacle of my career. I was combining a challenging workload with caring for my elderly mother who continued to encourage me. Despite her frailty she never lost her mischievous sense of humour which kept me on an even keel on a day to day basis. I sincerely believed I had gone as far as I could. I was wrong. Further opportunities presented themselves. Interesting and intellectually challenging, I could not resist.
Between 2002 and 2014 I chaired the Glasgow branch of the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending learning so much about other areas of the criminal justice system. In 2001 I became a member of the Parole Board for Scotland and Vice Chair in 2005. In 2003 I was invited to become a member of the Sentencing Commission for Scotland. In 2004 I was asked to serve as a Temporary Judge in the High Court of Justiciary and Court of Session. That inspired me to seek the full time role as Senator of the College of Justice despite not having the typical background from which Senators usually came. I was not male, not privately educated and not from what might be perceived as a privileged background. I was rejected – several times - and very nearly gave up but friends persuaded me to persevere and in 2014, after almost 10 years, I finally got there! My final additional judicial role (albeit part-time) came in 2017 as an Upper Tribunal Judge dealing with appeals in immigration and asylum cases - fascinating.
As can be seen, challenging jobs continued to present themselves over the years. One is never too old to learn and I like to think that I am still, while reluctantly approaching retirement, not too old to learn or to accept further challenges!
Throughout my working life I recognised that it is important not to spend all my time buried in legal tomes. I have developed outside interests, some of which have allowed me to use to my professional skills in unexpected ways. I love theatre, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the court room is the setting for contemporary social drama. In 2010 I was invited to a performance of a wonderful piece of theatre called Black Watch, presented by National Theatre of Scotland. During the post-performance reception discussion turned to how I might involve myself with them. That led to my participation, in a very small way, in plans to deliver an innovative diversionary programme for disengaged young men from anti-social hot-spots in Scotland. It resulted in an amazing piece of theatre created by NTS, called Jump. Eventually I became one of their patrons, one of the best decisions in my life. I am also “champion” of a project in Hamilton based on a cast of young volunteers who write scripts about events experienced today by them or their contemporaries. These scenarios are acted out by the cast and viewed by other young people, followed by workshops to discuss and tackle the difficult issues raised. I have such an admiration for all involved in this project, and let’s be honest, the ultimate aim is to keep these young people away from me, in my day job, that is!
My other great passion is cooking. It is my idea of relaxing. I adapt my mother’s old Italian recipes and make up new ones, always with an Italian flavour. There is nothing better than having friends round to try out my latest culinary confection. I do not claim to be a brilliant cook, but one of my friends is convinced that I should abandon the bench and set up a restaurant. Another option in retirement?
I love my involvement with the young and in 2010 I was invited to become a member of the University of Glasgow’s “legal 40”. A group of professional lawyers from different parts of the legal profession, we mentor students during the year of Diploma of Legal Practice. I now mentor a number of students at different stages in their studies, not all from Glasgow University. I encourage them to come to court, observe the process and meet other professionals. This way they see law in action. I hope it adds some colour and meaning to their studies. I also support access scholarships at the University of Edinburgh and am an Ambassador for “Young Citizens” in London.
I sincerely believe that, if they can, those who have achieved their goals have a duty to encourage and support the young, particularly the underprivileged, essentially to give something back. Not all have had the benefits I have had.
My approach has always been - do not dwell on the disadvantages. Try not to think about them. One should follow one’s ambition, whatever hurdles present themselves.
I am as enthusiastic about the law today as I was when I started. It has been my life and I would not change a minute of it. Actually having been given an award for the job I love was, frankly, astonishing. An honorary doctor of laws from the University of Glasgow was the last thing I expected. I was absolutely delighted when they conferred that on me in June 2019. My parents and grandparents would have been so proud.
As I reflect on my life in the law, I wonder what that senior partner would say to me now. Sadly he is gone but I suspect he would still think that women are emotionally unsuited to court work, but he was, underneath it all, a kind man who ultimately did help me. He gave me my first chance of a job and so I like to imagine that he would give me a wink and say “Aye Right, M’Lady”.