Dame Janet Smith, now 76, is the first woman to be appointed to the Gibraltar Court of Appeal following a highly successful career as a barrister and judge in England. She was born in Stockport and lived most of her life in the North West of England. She went to Bolton School, then a direct grant institution.
At 18, she was offered places at Oxford and Cambridge Universities but instead she got married and had a family. By the age of 22, she had 2 boys and a girl. She now has five grandchildren and four step-grandsons.
She had aspirations to be a barrister when she was at school but was discouraged by a careers officer who said that the law was a man’s world. It was not until she was 28 that she returned to the idea of a career at the bar. With three young children to look after, it was not easy to go to university so she read for the bar working at home and using correspondence courses. She found the main difficulty was not having anyone to talk to about the law. To her dismay, she found that, for her final year, the rules were changed and she had to study in London at the Council of Legal Education. Her husband was very supportive and they employed a nanny for the weeks that she was away.
She was called to the bar in 1972 and, with the help and guidance of friends, joined chambers in Manchester where she had a pupillage with Christopher Rose, who later became Lord Justice Rose and Vice President of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division. He was a brilliant and generous pupil master and gave her much help and encouragement.
Janet remained in Chambers in Manchester for 20 years. In the early days, she did a wide range of civil, family and criminal work but after a few years, specialised in personal injury and clinical negligence cases. She became an assistant Recorder in 1984 and began sitting part-time in the Crown Court and County Court. After only 14 years at the bar, in 1986, she was appointed a QC. Modestly, she puts this down to being older and more mature than those who qualified at the same time as her. She became a recorder in 1988.
During her six years as a silk, she developed her practice in personal injuries, medical negligence and industrial disease cases. Most of her work was in the High Court in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle with occasional visits to the High Court and Court of Appeal in London.
In 1991, she chaired an inquiry into the ill treatment of autistic children at Scotforth House, a local authority school in Lancaster. Her investigation showed that the headmistress had become over-stressed and had resorted to physical chastisement in a misguided attempt to control the children’s challenging behaviour. The parents were naturally outraged and there had to be a complete change of regime.
In 1992, she was appointed to the High Court Bench (Queen’s Bench Division). At this time, there were very few women in that position. Only six had been previously appointed and two of those had retired. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was anxious to increase the number of women on the bench and, during the next few years, several more appointments were made. In 2002, Dame Janet was appointed to the Court of Appeal. Progress for the appointment of women has been slow and when Dame Janet retired in 2011, only about 10% of the judges of the High Court and Court of Appeal were women.
In 2001, Dame Janet was asked by the Lord Chancellor to chair a Public Inquiry into the activities of the serial killer Harold Shipman, a well-respected general practitioner in Hyde near Manchester. Initially, her terms of reference required her to examine the systems of death and cremation certification, coroners’ services and the monitoring and regulation of the medical profession. However, immediately after her appointment, she discovered that the people of Hyde were most concerned to know exactly who Shipman had killed. She felt that the families were entitled to know that as soon as possible. Her terms of reference were extended and 18 months later, she was able to tell the family of each of Shipman’s patients who had died while under his care whether or not the death had been natural or had been caused by Shipman. She concluded that Dr Shipman had murdered at least 218 patients since the early 1970s and that there was a real suspicion that he had murdered as many as 270. She feels that, in many respects, this was the most important aspect of the Inquiry’s work, as the uncertainty in which the families had been living since 1998 was extremely distressing.
She then turned her attention to the systems failures which had allowed Shipman’s killings to go undetected for 24 years. In her reports spanning 2003–2005, she made many recommendations for changes and reforms. She remains disappointed that so many of the recommendations have not been implemented. For example, she recommended important changes to the systems of death and cremation certification. “Death certification has not changed at all. There has been a pilot scheme along the lines I suggested which I understand has worked quite well, but has not been put into effect.” There have been some improvements to the cremation certification process and significant improvement in Coroners’ services, due largely to the appointment of a Chief Coroner. Perhaps the most important effect of the Inquiry, she says, has been to assist in the change of culture within the General Medical Council, the medical profession’s regulatory body. She does not claim to have brought that change about but she believes she helped to push it in the right direction.
In 2002, Dame Janet was appointed to the Court of Appeal where she worked until her retirement in 2011. During her time as a judge, she undertook many additional duties. She was the Presiding Judge of the North Eastern Circuit, Chairman of the Security Vetting Appeals Panel, Chairman of the Civil Committee of the Judicial Studies Board and President of the Council of the Inns of Court. She was Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn in 2012. She has honorary degrees from Manchester Metropolitan University, Lancaster University, the University of Manchester, The University of Law and Bolton University. She was Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University from 2003 until 2009 and in 2013, she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of Hughes Hall, Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2014, she was chair of the Buxton Arts Festival.
Following her retirement from the Court of Appeal in 2011, Dame Janet has been quite busy. In that year, she succeeded Lord Brennan as the Independent Assessor of Compensation for Miscarriages of Justice and continued to sit part time in the Court of Appeal. Then, towards the end of 2012, she was invited by the BBC to head a review – effectively an inquiry – into Jimmy Savile’s sexual misconduct while at the BBC. She was also asked to examine the culture of the BBC to see whether there were factors which had enabled Savile to continue abusing young people for so long without being reported and detected. The review had no statutory powers and she was dependent on the willingness of witnesses to come forward voluntarily. Given the nature of the evidence she had to hear, the proceedings had to take place in private.
The BBC published her report on 25th February 2016. She had found that, in connection with his work at the BBC, Savile had sexually abused 72 people, male and female, of whom eight were raped. One of the rape victims was only eight years old. She said that Savile had abused people at “virtually every one of the BBC premises at which he worked”. His victims did not report him for several reasons: they were afraid that they would not be believed as he was such a famous and well-respected person; they were ashamed of what they had done, often blaming themselves (wrongly) for allowing the abuse to occur; some were afraid to let their parents know what had happened to them. She also found that some members of staff were aware of (or suffered from) Savile’s inappropriate conduct but did not report this to senior management because there was a “culture of not complaining” and a culture of deference towards celebrities, known in the BBC as “the talent”. She described an atmosphere of insecurity still existing at the BBC. Some members of staff interviewed for the inquiry did so only after being assured that their names would not be published as they feared reprisal.
One of her continuing occupations is that she is a member of the panel which selects those who are to be recommended to the Lord Chancellor for appointment as Queen’s Counsel. By coincidence, she succeeded Sir Maurice Kay (The President of the Court of Appeal of Gibraltar) on that panel. The system of selection replaced the old system of ‘private soundings’ which operated in England and Wales for many years. The new system is evidence-based and is designed to be fairer and more transparent.
Dame Janet has made one visit to Gibraltar in April 2016 and was most impressed by all she saw, in particular, the quality of the advocacy of those who appeared. She hopes to be a member of the Court of Appeal when it sits in October.
In between all this, Dame Janet loves gardening with her husband Robin at their home in Bolton and in France where they have a cottage. When in London, she sees her grandchildren, gardens on her son’s allotment and goes to the theatre and the opera whenever she can. It is a full life and a happy one.