Pioneer who set the benchmark for a generation

THE curtain comes down this week on one of Scotland's most remarkable and historic judicial careers, that of the first lady of the law, Lady Cosgrove. She broke almost 500 years of male dominance with her appointment to the Supreme Courts bench, and she has paved the way for other women to follow. Her praises have been sung loud and long by many, yet she herself insists good fortune played its part.

"I have just been in the right place at the right time, part of a generation of women for whom there have been no barriers and, provided they have been prepared to put in the time and effort, have been able to reach the heights in their chosen profession. Even one generation back, women did not have that opportunity," she tells The Scotsman.

Hazel Aronson attended Glasgow High School for Girls and Glasgow University and continued to use her maiden name on joining the Faculty of Advocates in 1968. Although married to John Cosgrove, a dental surgeon, it was not the done thing at the time to be known by a married name. She toed the line in that respect, but otherwise, she proved something of a rebel.

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"In those days there was no such thing as maternity leave, and at the Bar it was assumed when you had your first baby you would go away and not come back. I took two weeks off with each of my two children. If you were away for long, people might forget about you," recalls Cosgrove, who recently turned 60 and is now a proud grandmother of five.

Her ability attracted favourable attention from an early stage. Lord Stott, the former judge, once recalled having 12 undefended divorces on his roll. "At 12:30 I still had four proofs to do, but at that point Miss Aronson took over and, with her usual competence, got all four through by one o'clock."

In 1979, she became the first female sheriff in Glasgow and later transferred to Edinburgh where she was the senior sheriff. Then, in 1992, Lord Hope, the lord president of the day, appointed her to the list of temporary judges who sat, when required, in the High Court and the Court of Session.

Just how novel it was for a woman to be on the Bench could be seen from the level of media attention given to the appointment, and also from one of Cosgrove's memories as she now looks back.

"It was suggested I should be addressed as 'Your Lordship'. That was seriously suggested and seriously pressed. I had to put up some stiff resistance. It certainly was not accepted as a matter of course that I be addressed as 'Your Ladyship'. I think that gives a flavour of what it was like at that time. It is so very different now," she says.

If there were some who hoped the interloper would get her comeuppance, they would have been heartened when her first damages award in the Court of Session - to a cyclist hit by a lorry - was cut on appeal by a massive 86,000.

It was a minor setback - if a setback at all - because her reputation continued to grow and the name of Hazel Aronson had been widely tipped for promotion by the time she received the fateful phone call from Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, the then Lord Advocate, in whose gift lay the appointment of judges.

"It was a Sunday evening and it came out of the blue. I was delighted," says Cosgrove, who this time was more than happy to take her married name as her title.

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"It's only ten years ago, but it is easy to lose sight of how different things were. The Bench was older and it was uniformly male. I think they were ready for the female touch, and I think they would admit it, although some more reluctantly than others."

Legend has it that at least one of her new colleagues would refer to Cosgrove only as "that woman", but if true, she never noticed.

"I did not feel any open hostility and I have to say that every man was welcoming, courteous, helpful and friendly, but I think they were slightly suspicious of me, some anyway. It was a learning curve for them and a very challenging experience for me.

"We have five women now and they are part of the fabric of the judiciary, and that is what I always wanted and aimed for. There is no fuss and no fanfare any longer because a woman is appointed. They are just accepted, and I warmly welcome that.

"I felt a heavy burden of responsibility to do the job properly and well so women coming after me would not be disadvantaged by people being able to say the first woman had let the side down.

"I felt I had to create a new image of the judge, one different from the traditional model but still recognisably a judge. I did not want to compromise my femininity.

"The publicity put on a lot of added pressure. There were hundreds of requests to speak at conferences, dinners, all sorts of events, because I was the first woman judge.

"I think it is vital that the judiciary represents the whole population, and for me it goes without saying that a judicial system that takes account of the experiences and perceptions of only 50 per cent of the population cannot be truly representative of the public at large and cannot enjoy public confidence."

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Cosgrove held key posts with the parole board, the mental welfare commission, an expert panel that examined sex offending and the boundaries commission.

Two of her most high-profile cases as a trial judge were the criminal prosecution of the MP Mohammad Sarwar on charges of electoral fraud - he was acquitted - and the unsuccessful attempt by former Celtic manager Lou Macari to sue the club. Last week, she was one of two judges who upheld former MSP Mike Watson's conviction for willful fire-raising.

She was so softly spoken, and went at such a rate of knots when she could be heard, that the shorthand of court reporters would often be left lagging, but they were more than happy to see her on the appeal court bench. She might not have been the presiding judge, the one who would normally be quoted, but invariably her judgment would be written in language that enabled the most complex legal issue to be understood. It was no accident she was quoted widely in cases such as the redefining of the law of rape and of diminished responsibility and the approval of the Scottish Parliament's emergency legislation to keep dangerous but untreatable killers in the state hospital.

"Although I love the work, it is very demanding. On Friday evening, at the end of a hard week, a huge bag of next week's appeal papers - I cannot lift it - is delivered to your house and that is your weekend reading. I feel ready for a change. It's been 27 years (as a sheriff and judge) and that's quite a long time at the coal face," says Cosgrove.

"At 60, I think it's too young to fade into genteel retirement. I'm going to give myself a few months of doing nothing and then decide just what I want to do. I may come back as a mothball [a retired judge who makes up the numbers in the appeal court]. I have been offered a job as an au pair by both my children to look after the grandchildren, but I don't think that is one I will be taking up!"