Nothing like a Dame

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss ushered in the first ladies' loo in the Court of Appeal, defends gay parents and is set to drag judges into the computer age. Claire Smith meets the new president of the Court of Appeal's family division.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss arrives a few moments late for our meeting in the depths of the rabbit warren that is the Royal Courts of Justice. She bursts in. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she says. "After 20-odd years I still can't always find my way around here."

After just two weeks in her new position at the top of the English judiciary, the president of the High Court's family division finds herself on a par with the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the Vice-Chancellor. Only the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine is ranked higher in the judicial hierarchy.

Butler-Sloss takes over the job at a time when politicians are again playing the family card. But while her task may seem daunting, the woman once described by her novelist neighbour Jilly Cooper as "a sturdy Welsh cob", exudes confidence.

"I should start off by saying that I have only been in this position for 15 days," she says. "I'm not at all certain of what the scope of my duties is. But I have inherited an excellent team of judges and district judges and I hope to lead them well into the next century," she continues, slipping into her new political role.

She may be 66 years old, but you could hardly describe Butler-Sloss as "elderly". Her flashing blue eyes could strike fear into the heart of any unruly barrister, while her smile could calm the most emotionally-charged situations she may find herself judging.

Not afraid to speak her mind, Butler-Sloss hit the headlines this month when she defended adoption by homosexuals, saying that children could be successfully brought up by same sex couples. This – her first proclamation since assuming her new position – was roundly condemned by Conservatives and pro-family organisations, while hailed as groundbreaking by gay and lesbian campaigners.

"I see both parents as important," Butler-Sloss says. "But that is not to say there are not a number of cases where children are well cared for by single parents or parents of the same sex."

Her comments are seen as a sign of the family division of the future. One leading family silk says: "I wholeheartedly agree with her comments and I was not at all surprised. She is progressive-minded, and that's the way the family court is heading."

Her views are part of a continued effort to keep up with the times and play down her aristocratic old school image. She comes from a Conservative background, standing as Tory candidate for the safe Labour seat of Vauxhall in the 1959 general election – a failure which stands out among a career full of success.

Her polished accent gives away her well-to-do background. She was born into an established legal family. Her father, Sir Cecil Havers, was a High Court judge. Her brother, Michael Havers, the father of actor Nigel Havers, was Attorney General under Margaret Thatcher and briefly held the post of Lord Chancellor. She admits that she made use of family contacts to go straight to the bar without attending university. From there she went for a minor judicial post as a divorce registrar, and was soon promoted to a judge in the family division of the High Court. This was the first time anyone had become a High Court judge straight from being a registrar, and is still a rare occurrence today.

Ten years ago Butler-Sloss made it into the Court of Appeal, prompting the installation of the first ladies' loo especially for her. Although it was not the first time she had pioneered progress for women – she set up and ran the first nursery for toddlers in the basement of the Inner Temple during her years at the bar – she is clearly not happy with the torch she has carried.

For six years she was happy to be known as Lord Justice Butler-Sloss and answered to "My Lord" until Sir Thomas Bingham, the then Master of the Rolls, said she could be called "Lady Justice".

"There are far more important things to worry about," she explains. But however much she resists, Butler-Sloss will continue to be seen as a trailblazer for as long as she is gaining appointments never before awarded to women.

Helene Pines Richman, chair of the Association of Women Barristers, says: "We now have two women in the Court of Appeal. President of the family division is an important position and seeing a woman get that appointment is good news for all of us in the profession."

Butler-Sloss may not like the label of moderniser, but she admits that there is modernising to be done. Her first task, she says, will be to familiarise the judiciary with the world of information technology.

"I've just done a three-day course and got myself a new computer," she tells me with a wry smile. "I'm only just out of primary school on this, and moving into secondary school, but I think technology is critical. I hope the judiciary will all be able to do what I've done because it's enormously important."

And she is clear that her desire for her colleagues to get over their technophobia is more than a suggestion. "My views are being expressed loudly and clearly," she says.

Butler-Sloss speaks extremely fast and with great enthusiasm. Although once famously caught on a television documentary apparently not knowing how much she earned, it is a rare occasion when she cannot think on her feet.

That documentary was the first of a number of unhappy encounters with the media. She felt she had been treated unfairly by the programme makers, who left her embarrassing slip-up in the final version, and her suspicion of the media was confirmed earlier this year when she was in the headlines after a car accident.

Butler-Sloss was the driver in a crash that injured her grandchildren's nanny, but was offered a driving refresher course in lieu of prosecution. The tabloids jumped on the case as an example of a well-connected person receiving differential treatment from the rest of us.

Her rulings have also thrust her into the media spotlight on more than one occasion. She first shot to fame when she chaired the Cleveland child abuse enquiry more than 10 years ago, with her recommendations being implemented in the Children Act 1989. She said then that children should not be removed from their homes unless absolutely necessary, and should be "entitled to respect and consideration". It is a view she still holds.

"We shouldn't treat the children in isolation, but look at the needs of the children within the family. We have to do all we can for the benefit of the children," she says, in a manner which suggests that this is her strongest conviction. In every instance she is determined to battle to the end to resolve disputes as amicably as possible.

"Even at the last moment it's amazing how much you can do by seeing where [families] can agree, even if they can't agree on everything." In her most recent high-profile case she ruled in favour of Camden Council against an HIV-positive mother who refused to let her baby be tested for the virus. She was one of three Court of Appeal judges who decided that it was in the best interests of the five-month-old girl to be tested.

At the time Butler-Sloss said that the parents' rejection of orthodox medical opinion "cannot stand against the right of this child to be properly cared for in every sense".

The mother of three says she sees the rights of the child as paramount in every case. "I am children-orientated," she says. "I look at things from the children's point of view."

Her appointment has been universally welcomed among the specialist bar. Top family silk Jeremy Posnansky QC of 1 Mitre Court Buildings says: "She runs a tight court, always being alive to what the case is really about and not tolerating waffle or letting time be wasted on bad points.

"She manages to mix crisp efficiency with great charm and good humour. You very rarely hear grumblings about the way she has presided over a case."

Another highly regarded silk says: "I like her very much. I can only describe her as a headmistress type – she has a very mildly bossy manner, but she is very pleasant. The nicest type of headmistress."

And the woman who will find herself at the centre of much controversy in the coming months, dealing with such emotional issues as persistive vegetative cases, is keen to get started. "I'm consulting everybody about what is being done and what needs to be done, and I am at a very early stage," she says. "But I am looking forward enormously to this job. I see it as a fascinating opportunity."

And she whizzes away as dramatically as she arrived.