Thursday 16th June saw the Old Bailey in London host the 3rd annual Heilbron Lecture, “Climate Change, and the Radical Potential of Outrage to Advance the Frontiers of Law”, delivered by Professor Lavanya Rajamani, Professor of International Environmental Law, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford, lawyer and author.

The series has been created by Next 100 Years, the campaign project to celebrate the role of women in law, sponsored by Obelisk Support and founded by Obelisk CEO Dana Denis-Smith.

Why the Heilbron series?

Named in honour of Dame Rose Heilbron QC, the series aims to amplify the voice of women who are experts in their field of law. It came into being as a counterpoint to the male-domination of the legal lecture circuit and acts as a focal point to celebrate women’s contribution to the furthering of the field of law.

Who was Rose Heilbron?

Dame Rose Heilbron QC was one of the first women KCs (alongside Helena Normanton), the first woman to be appointed a Recorder and the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey.

She was a dedicated defence barrister for much of her career, starting in the Northern Circuit in 1940. By 1946, she had appeared in 10 murder trials. Just a few months after the birth of her daughter Hilary in 1949, she was appointed one of the first two female King’s Counsel. Aged 34, she was the youngest KC since 1783. As well as her work as a barrister and judge, she chaired the 1975 committee reviewing rape laws, leading to improvements in how rape claimants are protected by the law that still stand today.

Rose was appointed as the first female Recorder in November 1956. In 1972, Rose was appointed as the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey, making it even more appropriate that fifty years on, the lecture series that bears her name was hosted in this historic court.

Why was this year’s topic climate change?

Professor Rajamani drew attention to the fact that the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021-2022) found that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”.

The global surface temperature is already 1.1 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial period and, she explained, ten of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005. Increased temperatures are causing floods, droughts and heatwaves, leading to the extinction of species, loss of human life and potentially irreversible impacts on our global climate systems.

“And as these devastating impacts are unfolding – as heatwaves spread across the world, glaciers melt, islands sink, wildfires rage and storms and floods ravage the earth – Green House Gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise.”

Professor Lavanya Rajamani

Professor of International Environmental Law, lawyer and author

Despite widespread recognition of the fact that our current trajectory is unsustainable, and the increased numbers of policymakers, governments, NGOs, scientists, law-makers and campaigners working on this area over the last three decades, progress is very slow.

Professor Rajamani went to identify ways in which international law is lacking as a tool to combat climate change, and how it might be changed in order to help protect our planet. In highlighting cases in progress brought by activists and governments seeking redress against environmental damage, she shows how the legal system might contribute to the lasting changes we need to make to avert climate catastrophe.

Climate change, ESG and the role of lawyers

We’ve written before on this blog about the part environmental lawyers play in leading the cases that challenge, and lead to penalties for, unsustainable climate practices on the part of governments and large companies.

As consumer and investor awareness of climate change grows, there is increasing pressure on companies to set out and deliver pathways to sustainable behaviour as part of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) regime. Using an ESG framework to structure and report on initiatives helps companies demonstrate the impact of changes they are making and secure future investment.

This means that there is a renewed opportunity for general counsel and in-house lawyers in their teams to drive positive change by contributing to corporate sustainability by ensuring that practices and policies are embedded through-out an organisation and their supply chain. A recent report from LexisNexis and Lawyers for Net Zero highlighted practical tactics for in-house legal leaders to get involved, such as:

  • Developing training and guidance to help avoid “greenwashing”
  • Building and sharing policy around the organisation to drive sustainable practices
  • Utilising their business network to build consensus around ESG targets
  • Using their unique view of the entire business to identify new sustainability strategies.

You can read the full transcript of the 3rd annual Heilbron lecture here, as well as addresses from previous speakers, Law Commissioner Professor Sarah Green and Kirsty Brimelow QC.


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