Louisa Castle is invited into the Cheshire home of District Judge Marilyn Mornington and chats about her inspirational career, women in law and Latin dancing
District Judge Marilyn Mornington became a judge at the early age of 40. She currently sits in the Wigan Family Court making the difficult heart-string tugging decisions you or I would struggle with, concerning the welfare of children. In her career to date she has advised nations, been guests of presidents and prime ministers, chaired committees and written and lectured on family law and issues affecting Asian and Muslim communities. Last year she was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by London’s Brunel Law School and Good of All, a Washington DC non-profit human rights movement, made in recognition for her outstanding work in the areas of human rights, domestic violence, gender crime and international peace.
To top it all, an interview with a district judge is not an everyday occurrence so as I pulled up outside her home I was understandably feeling a little nervous. Greeted warmly by Marilyn and her beloved fox terrier, Mollie, this feeling soon dissipated and my pen was scrolling across the page, ten to the dozen as the questions and answers flowed.
Speaking with knowledge, confidence and a warm Liverpool lilt, we begin, not about all she has achieved but about her passions, fuelled by spotting the ode to Everton on the back window of her car. ‘My two lovely sons, Jamieson and Jordan. They are my passions, my life and I am inordinately proud of them. Mollie is a close second! Then there’s Everton, Latin and ballroom dancing, baking, knitting [Marilyn knits for the special care baby unit and Alder Hey and has set up a charity knit club at Court called The Wigan Woollies] and anything Irish!’
Chatting away our topics vary from royalty to shoes and they could have continued all afternoon but I am here to find out more about her inspirational story so far. ‘My mum has to be my biggest inspiration and role model. Dad died when I was only two so she had to work and bring me up on her own. I have often looked to her example when raising my own family – I only wish I could have been half as good as her!
‘We were just an ordinary working class family and a strong work ethic was instilled in me. I never thought I’d not work. Mum totally supported me and made sure I was well educated by the nuns. But it was her tales of the beautiful Rose Heilbron that stuck with me the most – the first lady QC. She was also the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey. Born and raised in Liverpool she overcame enormous gender and religious prejudice to rise to the top of her profession.
‘I was also inspired by my classmate’s mother, Dr Peggy Norris, one of the first doctors into the concentration camps after World War II which, in turn, awakened her interest in medical ethics. She campaigned on medical issues including termination of pregnancy and euthanasia.
‘Growing up with these stories I knew I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to try and make a difference. And law was the career path I followed to achieve that.
‘I studied at Sheffield and London (being called to the Bar in same year as Cherie Blair) and just before we qualified the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was passed so everything was opening up. Not, to be honest, that we were aware anything was closed!’
Marilyn specialised in family law, brought up a family and became the then youngest judge in the country. ‘But my mum was my support all the way. I remember reading a biography Hilary Heilbron QC wrote about her mother and there’s a part which sticks with me. She states that a major part of Rose’s earnings went on childcare and looking after the home. At the time there was no acceptance of women being entitled to follow their chosen career paths , there was no maternity leave or anything like that so women had to do it all to succeed – perfect home life and perfect work life, so many professional women stayed single or childless.
‘When I started my career there was still not a single woman in many Chambers. It was a man’s job, so if you wanted it you had to act like a man. Today one in five circuit judges is female and thanks to women like Rose Heilbron there’s no discrimination for my own lovely daughters-in-law- Peri ,a solicitor and Deirdre, a banker.’
‘As a junior judge I was asked to attend a local women’s refuge. I had no true knowledge of the issues surrounding domestic violence and crimes until then but I knew it was a golden moment to make a difference.’
The next ten years saw a revolution in the practise and procedures used to address and support domestic violence and Marilyn was privileged to work alongside the best of men and women to achieve this- such as Jim Gamble QPM . Indeed she was the founder and chair of the initiative ‘Raising the Standards’ which included governments from England, Eire, Northern Ireland, Scotland and The Channel Islands.
She has also led an inter-disciplinary initiative on domestic violence in Asian and Muslim communities when her eyes were opened to the hidden issues which some women were desperate to address but had nowhere to turn. As a result, this led to work in Pakistan on gender crime and being part of the first ever official visit of women to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Royal Family and several recent official visits to the UAE .
The list of Marilyn’s achievements is lengthy, impressive and humbling and I am absolutely positive that it will lengthen further. She has also for many years mentored men and women wanting to make it in the world of law.
‘My career has progressed organically. There was no plan with targets, simply opportunities grabbed with both hands and lots of support personally and professionally. As a Diversity and Community Relations Judge (DCRJ) in the north west my role is to show that we’re human beings but also to encourage people into law and make sure there’s every support in place. After all, I believe that the system should reflect the society we live in.’
Current figures suggest that ethnic minorities make up 14 per cent of the UK population and the percentage of men to women is slightly in favour of women. The judicial system is evolving to reflect this with nearly one in 10 (9.5 per cent) of all courts and tribunals officeholders from an ethnic minority with 52 per cent of magistrates are female.
‘The work I do here and abroad is about helping to give other women the chance to fulfil their potential in the way that I have been blessed and it is the greatest privilege, as you can imagine. My work goes just a little way to repay the support I was given by others not least my amazing and totally self-sacrificing mum.
‘God willing, in the future, I would like to travel to more parts of the developing world and work with governmental and charitable organisations, particularly in the Middle East. I’d like to finally get my Rhumba sorted (as I am sure my coach Mark will also agree) and if we are blessed as a family, that I can enjoy and care for my grandkids, just as my mum did for me. ‘
Photography: Daniel Killoran
With thanks to Hugo & Otto
 The Court and Tribunals Judiciary as at 9 October, 2014 and 31 July, 2014 respectively (judiciary.gov.uk)
 The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 1 April 2014 (judiciary.gov.uk)