Former Appeal Court Judge Dame Janet Smith DBE gave an inspiring account into her life at the University of Bolton last night.
In conversation with renowned broadcaster Gordon Burns, Dame Janet examined her progression for mother of three at the age of 22 to one of the country’s leading judicial figures.
She is now best known for chairing the inquiries into Harold Shipman and, more recently, Jimmy Savile.
Dame Janet was educated at Bolton School and won a place to study Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. However becoming a mother meant she was unable to take up her place at the world leading institution.
It wasn’t until years later that she discovered her passion for the law, attending Bolton Court sessions in the Crescent.
‘I started listening to the cases and became hugely impressed with the judge. I thought that he had the right balance between being tough and merciful and recognising when it was right to be merciful.
‘I went to a careers lecture at Bolton School where I put my hand up and asked what you had to do to become a barrister. I was told that unless I had a father or an uncle who was a solicitor it would be better if I gave it a miss because the law was a man’s world.’
Despite the setback, encouragement from friends who served as barristers inspired her to read for the bar through correspondence courses.
‘Once I started reading law I just loved it. I knew I’d found my thing,’ she said.
Dame Janet began her career as a barrister, progressing to a QC, Judge and finally an Appeal Court Judge.
‘The law has given me a lot of satisfaction because I have enjoyed every stage of my career,’ recounted Dame Janet.
During the event, Dame Janet discussed the two inquiries she has chaired into serial killer Harold Shipman and Jimmy Savile.
Speaking about the inquiry into Harold Shipman, which concluded in 2005, she told the audience in Bolton about her advice to the Home Office which has not been taken.
‘One of the recommendations I made was for the reform of death certification. That 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.
‘Cremation certification has been tightened up, not because of any change in the law, but because the medical profession realised cremation certification practice had become a rubber stamping exercise.
‘There has been a Coroner’s Act which has made some changes. We now have a Chief Coroner and there is now training for Coroner’s. I do feel the coronial service has made progress.’
Dame Janet did admit that despite the lack of changes in the law, the inquiry had been useful as the General Medical Council recognised the force of criticism and had made internal changes.
She also address criticism that she defended the BBC in the Jimmy Savile inquiry.
‘Jimmy Savile would use the BBC as a means of grooming and a venue for picking up. The BBC wouldn’t have been aware he had taken someone home with him and there is no reason why they should. They didn’t have anything concrete, or any specific examples.
‘I am very satisfied that the BBC are taking this extremely seriously.’
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