Jennifer Kershaw QC

JUDGE Jennifer Kershaw QC, who has died at the age of 61 after losing her battle with cancer, was considered a star on the circuit bench.

Amongst the senior judiciary she was admired for her skill, energy, independence and common sense, considered to have a safe pair of hands when it came to handling the most difficult and sensitive of cases.

Her colleagues not only admired her judgments but found her a tonic behind the scenes with a whimsical sense of humour, while court staff simply described her as a lovely lady.

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Born to Harland and Mary Heath in Hartlepool in May 1951, where her father was head brewer at Camerons, she was the oldest of three daughters.

There was no television in her home in the 1950s, so she read a lot as a child and excelled at school, both at Elwick Road Girls and later West Hartlepool High.

She represented her school on the BBC programme Top of the Form then chaired by a youthful David Dimbleby.

After school, she took a gap year working under the auspices of the United Nations in a residential school for physically and mentally handicapped children in Switzerland.

Latin and Greek were among her best subjects at school but she decided on law as a degree course and headed south to King’s College, London.

She joked later that she knew barristers “were the ones who stood up and had to say something, which I didn’t have any difficulty with”.

Called to the bar in 1974, her search for a pupillage brought her to No 6 Park Square in Leeds, at a time when there were only four other women barristers in the city. That did not stop her from going on to build up a broad based civil, criminal and family law practice.

After marriage, she had a seven- year career break during which her two daughters were born in 1983 and 1985, followed by her son in 1988.

She returned to work having become a single parent and from then on had to juggle the responsibilities of a household and three active children with also being a working mother.

For 18 months she did two days a week but then, with more help at home, went full-time, rapidly embracing all the changes in the law in the years she had been away.

She succeeded so well that by 2002 she had become
the first woman to lead a barristers’ chambers in the city becoming the proud head
of No 6.

She built up a formidable reputation on the North Eastern Circuit, regularly instructed in the most serious of criminal cases and care proceedings.

Professionally her career went from strength to strength. She took the first step on the judicial ladder when she became an assistant recorder in 1996 progressing to recorder in 2000 having taken silk at the first attempt in 1998.

She was known for her attention to detail and thorough research but was also described by some as feisty.

Prosecuting a multi-handed conspiracy to murder at a time when she had one leg in plaster following a riding accident, she turned up in court one day without her pot after only five weeks.

Asked if the hospital had decided she could remove it early she replied they had not but she had become so frustrated trying to manage the trial on crutches that she had got a saw from the garage and cut the plaster off herself.

She had a great sense of humour. At one chambers’ seminar, when a colleague known for his constant “chuntering” while others were talking, was up to his usual behaviour during an address by a leading academic, she apologised for interrupting the speaker saying “could someone at the back throw a towel over the budgie’s cage?” It brought the house down.

With her stellar qualities she was destined for the bench and became a circuit judge in 2005 where her skills won her new admirers.

Her humour then relieved tensions for her fellow judges when they were off the bench to whom she described more than one advocate as “a positive danger to shipping”.

She also became a magistrates’ liaison judge and the judicial member of the Probation Trust for West Yorkshire.

The senior presiding judge for England and Wales, Lord Justice Goldring, was among the judiciary who expressed sadness on hearing of her death and judges from across the north joined lawyers at a tribute to her this week at Leeds Crown Court.

Outside the job her first priority was her family and her three children. She was extremely proud of their achievements, Lucy in the RAF, Claire, a solicitor, and Patrick a tree surgeon.

Horses were her passion which began when her children started riding and she thought: “I could do that.”

Of course not for her the easy stuff of show jumping – she took up dressage and riding side saddle. Last year she qualified for the final of the regional dressage competition and for several years was secretary of the Yorkshire Side Saddle Association.

She found extra happiness later in life when marrying another circuit judge, Richard Jenkins in 2010.

They met at the circuit judges’ dinner in London in 2005 and a relationship blossomed with them not only sharing the background of judging but a common interest in literature and walking.

After her diagnosis last year she communicated with many friends via text message never losing her sharpness of wit even when struggling with chemotherapy.

She wrote to one colleague: “Finding chemo like some people’s advocacy – inducing at first surprise then rage, suppressed and finally a state of serenity in which to endure long haul to the end.”

Olwen Dudgeon