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Dame Caroline Swift's life on the Northern Circuit

Our Chair had an illustrious career as a High Court Judge before joining the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service. 

This month Dame Caroline Swift shared her knowledge and experience with an audience at Byrom Street Chambers in Manchester where she and fellow guest Dame Janet Smith were barristers. 

Ahead of the event to celebrate the First 100 Years of women in law Dame Caroline spoke to the Judicial Office communications team about becoming a judge, her career highs and wanting to support those starting out in the profession. 

Read the article below.


Some people take years to find their true vocation, but not Dame Caroline Swift. She knew she wanted to enter the legal profession at the tender age of six.

That’s when Dame Caroline, who later became the Honourable Mrs Justice Swift, and her mum went to tea with a neighbour in Morecambe, whose 23-year-old son was then doing a pupillage at Chambers in Manchester.

“He told me what a wonderful job it was and let me try on his wig,” she said. “I decided there and then that I wanted to be called to the Bar too. This was pretty ambitious since I would be the first in my family to either go to university or to enter the law.”

The neighbour’s son was Christopher Rose (later the Rt Hon Sir Christopher), who went on to become a Court of Appeal Judge and Vice-President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.

Leaving Durham University in 1976, Dame Caroline was called to the Bar the following year, and started practice in Manchester in 1978.

“In those days on the Northern Circuit, you did a bit of everything when starting out – criminal, family and civil work. In my case this included personal injury claims, mainly involving factory accidents,” she explained.

"I decided there and then that I wanted to be called to the Bar too. This was pretty ambitious since I would be the first in my family to either go to university or to enter the law."

Dame Caroline Swift

Chair of the MPTS

After having her first child in 1984, she chose to specialise more in personal injury and industrial disease cases. “It was an extremely interesting area to work in and, in retrospect, surprising to think that the clients I represented (mostly working men) were prepared to take advice from a woman in her 20s, but they did.”

The fourth woman to join her Chambers in Manchester (there are now nearly 50 women there), she met colleague, Janet Smith (now The Rt Hon Dame Janet Smith and a former Court of Appeal Judge), who’d been called to the Bar about five years before her. The pair would work together a good deal over the years.

Dame Caroline explained: “Because of the way that Dame Janet and a few other women on the Circuit were making their mark, when I got to Chambers, there were no concerns about what women could or could not do. We were treated on a very level playing field”.

Dame Caroline Swift [left], Dame Janet Smith and Alex Clark at the Byrom Street Chambers event. Picture courtesy of Byrom Street Chambers. 

Indeed, I believe the Northern Circuit was very accepting of women barristers. There were a few tiny imbalances, for example the robing room for women at Manchester Crown Court was very small compared with the men’s – but at that time there were only a very few women on the Circuit.”

Appointed a QC in 1993, Dame Caroline specialised in complex clinical negligence, catastrophic brain injury and industrial disease cases. She was also a Recorder and, from 2000, a Deputy High Court Judge.

Then, in 2001, she was appointed Leading Counsel to the Shipman Inquiry, which was chaired by Dame Janet. This investigated the activities of GP and serial killer, Harold Shipman, who had been convicted of 15 murders and later took his own life. The Inquiry established he had killed at least 215 of his patients, maybe even 260 or more.

“The Inquiry took us four years, it was definitely the biggest case I’ve ever worked on,” said Dame Caroline. “We looked at many issues including death certificates, access to drugs, how someone like that can be stopped in future. Shipman’s killings caused a shock in the area where he practised that’s still being felt today.”

While intending to return to her regular work after the Inquiry ended in 2005, Dame Caroline was appointed a High Court Judge, so never returned to her old Chambers.

She and her husband, Sir Peter Openshaw, who also became a High Court Judge, were sworn in on the same day – a unique achievement. He is now also retired. They have a son and a daughter, and live in the Ribble Valley.

As a Judge, Dame Caroline presided over both criminal and civil trials, including many personal injury and clinical negligence cases.

Between 2006 and 2015, she was Judge in Charge of the British Coal Respiratory Disease Litigation, a group action involving over half a million claims by miners who had suffered from debilitating lung diseases as a result of their work. It’s one of the UK’s largest ever industrial injury compensation pay-outs.

From 2012-14 she was Director of Civil Training at the Judicial College, with responsibility for the training in civil work of Judges at all levels.

In 2017, after retiring from the judiciary, Dame Caroline was appointed Chair of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service which – operating separately from the General Medical Council - organises and conducts all disciplinary hearings involving doctors whose fitness to practise may be impaired. The creation of a separate adjudication service for doctors had been one of the main recommendations to come out of the Shipman Inquiry, so Dame Caroline has particular satisfaction in her role as Chair.

Now, on 11 September this year, Dame Janet and Dame Caroline will be reuniting once again, this time at a First 100 Years celebratory event at their old Chambers to mark their legal careers.

Dame Caroline said: “I have benefited from Dame Janet going directly in front of me in her career, and feel I have always been in her slipstream. She has been a great influence on me, I have learned a lot from her and she has been a great mentor too.”

“At the event, we will be talking about our careers, the changes we have seen and of course, our experiences in the Shipman Inquiry. I hope to see many people attending, and that it will be an enjoyable event.”

“It’s important to give back to the next generation who are starting their legal careers. For a long time, I was on the Inner Temple Scholarship Committee, helping young people in need to fulfil their ambition, and I have been involved in similar work at my former university too.

"I was very fortunate when I was starting, considering I had no family or other close connections with the law. So I feel it’s very important to give this help to others.”

First 100 Years

The First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project, supported by the Law Society, Bar Council and CILEx, charting the journey of women in law since 1919. Visit their website to find out more about the campaign, forthcoming events and their digital museum.