Law Hall of Fame logoRose Heilbron graduated from Liverpool University in 1935 and was accepted into law school where, in 1937, she obtained a Master of Laws degree.

She joined the English bar through Gray’s Inn in 1939. She was able to benefit from the absence of many barrister otherwise enlisted in World War II.

Then, according to the Guardian newspaper, writing in 2005:

"Those jealous of her career have said that she benefited from the fact that, for her first six years, so many able men were in the armed forces. Given the prejudices of the bar at the time, there is little doubt that, without the second world war, she would have faced more limitations, but her meteoric rise once the men were back proved that she was head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries.

"Almost everything in the notable career of Dame Rose Heilbron, who has died aged 91, was a first. One of the outstanding defence barristers of the postwar period, she was the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray's Inn, the first woman to be appointed silk, the first to lead in a murder case, the first woman recorder, the first woman to sit at the Old Bailey and the first woman treasurer of Gray's Inn."

In 1956, she became the first women to be appointed King's Counsel (now, Queen's Counsel or QC) and in 1972, became the first female judge to preside over a trial at Old Bailey.

In 1949, she defended gangster George Kelly who stood accused of murder (she lost; he was convicted a hung). She successfully defended Mary Standish in 1951 and, later, Dennis Murtagh and Jack Spot Comer.

In 1974, she became only the second woman to be appointed a high court judge. A year later, she accepted the chair of a high profile inquiry called Home Secretary’s Advisory Group on Rape which advanced the then-revolutionary and controversial proposals to keep the victims' names secret throughout trial and that cross-examination of a rape victim's past sexual be limited.

In 1987, according to the London Times:

"One of her most significant rulings was over the right of a woman and her unborn child. In 1987 a student father-to-be took his fight to the Court of Appeal after Mrs Justice Heilbron ruled that he was not entitled to stop his girlfriend having an abortion. In an unprecedented action, the unnamed Oxford student, aged 23, had sought an order on behalf of himself and his unborn child on the ground that an abortion would be an offence. But Heilbron gave the abortion the go-ahead. She ruled that in law the foetus, which was nearly 18 weeks, had no legal standing to bring an action through the father to keep itself alive."

She retired from the bench in 1988 and died on December 8, 2005 at the age of 91. Her daughter Hillary is a barrister and a QC.


  • Dame Rose Heilbron, The London Times, December 13, 2005
  • Golemba, B., Lesser Known Women: A Biographical Dictionary (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992), page 71.
  • Morton, J., Dame Rose Heilbron, The Guardian Newspaper, Dec 13, 2005