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Curnow, (Elizabeth) Ann Margueritelocked

  • Michael Beloff

Curnow, (Elizabeth) Ann Marguerite (1935–2011), barrister and judge, was born on 5 June 1935 in Sapcote Road, Burbage, Hinckley, Leicestershire, the only child of Cecil Curnow (1907–1944), aircraftman, and his wife, Doris Babette, née Behr (1905–1964). Her father was shot down over Java in 1942 and died in Japanese captivity two years later. Ann Curnow was educated at St Hilda's School in Whitby and St Paul's Girls' School, London. She took a degree in law at King's College, London, from which she graduated in 1955 with a lower second-class degree. In 1956 she passed her bar finals. Too young to be called to the bar under the rules then in place, she worked for six months at Whitelock and Storr, solicitors, of Bloomsbury Square, and then studied at the Sorbonne for a year for a diploma in French civilization. In 1957 she was called to the bar by Gray's Inn, which she had joined in 1954, one of a trio of women—the others being Jean Southworth and Ann Goddard—who were so admitted within a span of six years and shared over the years a close friendship and similar professional distinction as silks, benchers of the inn, and judges. She did not originally intend to practise, seeking some legal job which offered greater financial security but, when her search proved fruitless, opted for the hazards of a junior barrister's life.

After six months in common law chambers, Curnow obtained a pupillage and then a tenancy in the specialist criminal set of John Buzzard, Treasury counsel, at No. 4—soon to become No. 6—King's Bench Walk in the Temple. There she acquired both, initially, a practice and, much later, a husband, (William) Neil Denison (b. 1929), whom she married on 28 September 1981, a not unusual double achievement in the closed community of the bar.

Curnow herself practised in the field of criminal law. In due course she became junior Treasury counsel, first at Middlesex Guildhall (1972–7) then at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey) (1977–81). Subsequently she became senior Treasury counsel at the latter court (1981–5), the first woman to be appointed to that office. This required her to prosecute the most serious of criminal cases. In 1985 she became both a QC and a master of the bench.

Ann Curnow was essentially a trial lawyer. She was endowed with a striking appearance, an impeccable dress sense, and a deep voice (enhanced by regular consumption of cigarettes), which she deployed with a deliberately measured delivery. Thorough in research and tenacious in cross examination (punctuated by occasional bursts of sardonic wit), she compelled attention by judges and juries alike. The appellate courts were not her forum of choice. However in R <i>v.</i> Adomako (1994), appearing for the crown (with Lord Williams of Mostyn appearing for the appellant), she persuaded the House of Lords as to the proper approach to a charge of manslaughter arising from gross negligence where an anaesthetist had carelessly disconnected a ventilator during an eye operation. She also featured in reported cases involving provocation, similar fact evidence, duress, and the anonymising of the names of children said to be victims of sexual abuse.

In court Curnow maintained a professional formality; out of court she displayed her gift for friendship in her chambers. Tea (or something a little stronger) and sympathy were always on offer. She was active in the inn's affairs, being particularly solicitous of the younger barristers, recognizing that the inn's very survival depended, not on its historic past but on its concern for the future. She was also a mentor of other female barristers in her sphere of practice, regarding them as protégées rather than rivals. In 2007 she was presented with the silver griffin, the heraldic emblem of Gray's Inn, in the conventional recognition of half a century's membership of the bar.

Curnow utilized her legal skills in many areas. She was a recorder of the crown court for two decades, from 1980 to 2000, a member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal from 2000 to 2004, a member of the Parole Board (1992–4) and Criminal Injuries Compensation Board (1996–2002), and chairman of Victim Support in Lambeth (1987–2003).

Her extra-curricular activities were diverse: music (she was a member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians) and Burmese cats, of which she had a succession, as well as tapestry and gardens—two pastimes for which she exhibited true talent. A lover of tradition, she was the enthusiastic partner of her husband at the City events attendant on his office as common serjeant and master of the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, and a caring mother to his three sons by a previous marriage, whom she treated as if they were her own and indeed referred to always as sons, not stepsons.

Circulation problems led to the amputation of Curnow's leg below her left knee, and brought to an end her professional career, from which she bowed out with a swan song in a murder trial at the Old Bailey in 2005. She bore this and other physical setbacks with courage, but her new found interest in access for the disabled led her to insist on the provision of a rail for the outer steps leading to Gray's Inn Hall—known thereafter as the Curnow rail. She died of multiple organ failure on 11 May 2011 in St Thomas's Hospital and was survived by her husband, Neil, and her three stepsons. Her life was proof positive that neither origin nor gender could deny a natural advocate success even in the overwhelmingly masculine environment of the criminal bar in the latter part of the twentieth century. The Curnow rail is not the only legacy of someone rightly known as a trailblazer for women in the law.


  • King's Lond., archives
  • archives, Gray's Inn, London
  • WW (2011)
  • personal knowledge (2015)
  • private information (2015)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, 1985, Photoshot, London