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Lane [née Coulborn], Dame Elizabeth Kathleenfree


Lane [née Coulborn], Dame Elizabeth Kathleen (1905–1988), judge, was born on 9 August 1905 in Bowdon, Cheshire, the second of three children and only daughter of Edward Alexander Coulborn, mill owner at Bury in Lancashire, and his wife, Kate May Wilkinson. Her early years were spent in Bowdon and she was educated at home until the age of twelve. Her family moved to Switzerland in 1913, but returned in 1914 just before the outbreak of war. At Twizzletwig School in Hindhead and at Malvern Girls' College, she did not display any enthusiasm for academic studies, preferring to play games, especially hockey. Given the opportunity to study for Oxford or Cambridge, she decided not to embark on higher education and never regretted not going to university. She believed that, on leaving school, she would be 'done with academics and have a good time'.

In 1924 Elizabeth spent a year in Montreal with her elder brother, and there she met (Henry Jerrold) Randall Lane, whom she married in Didsbury parish church on 14 January 1926 when she was twenty. He was the son of a merchant of the same name. The couple went first to live in Manchester. Their only child, a son, was born in 1928. He was mentally disabled and died at the age of fourteen.

Her husband's decision to read for the bar changed Elizabeth Lane's entire life, and led to her distinguished career at the bar and on the bench. They read law together, and in 1940 she was called to the bar by the Inner Temple. She was elected a bencher in 1965. She quickly made a name for herself in a profession where few women were, at that time, in practice, and prejudice was hard to overcome. She joined the midland circuit and became a QC in 1950, only the third woman to do this. In turn she was an assistant recorder of Birmingham (1953–61), the first woman recorder of Derby (1961–2), and a commissioner of the crown court at Manchester (1961–2). She also became a member of the Home Office committee on depositions in criminal cases in 1948 and chair of the Birmingham region mental health review tribunal (1960–62). In 1962 she was the first woman to be appointed a county court judge and she sat until 1965. She also sat as acting deputy chairman of London sessions.

In 1965 Elizabeth Lane was the first woman to be appointed to the High Court bench and was assigned to the Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty, later the Family Division. On her appointment she was made DBE, an honour corresponding to the knighthood customarily conferred upon male High Court judges. In court she concealed, under a stern and even intimidating exterior, a warm, kindly, and understanding approach to the problems of families in the throes of separation and divorce. She was particularly understanding of the needs of children. When she went on circuit she enjoyed the opportunity to try both civil and criminal cases, in which she was always courteous. She was short in stature and wore glasses; correct in manner, she was conservative in outlook. Essentially a shy and modest person, she seldom relaxed except in private, when she was with close friends. She was very much aware that she was setting standards for the women judges of the future. Her portrait, which hangs in the Inner Temple, shows a stern unbending mien, which was only part of her character. She was a kind and generous friend, with an excellent though rarely displayed sense of humour.

Between 1971 and 1973 Elizabeth Lane chaired the committee on the working of the Abortion Act, managing controversial and emotive problems with skill and understanding. Her report displayed a tolerant and unexpectedly liberal attitude.

Elizabeth Lane's husband, Randall, became legal adviser to the British Council. They were a devoted couple brought closer by the tragedy of their son. Randall was a great support to her in her career, and his death in 1975 was a very sad loss.

On her retirement in 1979 Elizabeth Lane left the Temple, where she had lived for many years, and moved to Winchester. There, at Hillcrest, 60 Chilbolton Avenue, she had a garden, which she had missed in London. From time to time she sat in the Court of Appeal and much enjoyed it. She was very proud when the western circuit made her an honorary member. She always encouraged young women contemplating a career at the bar. In 1986 she became an honorary fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She died in Winchester on 17 June 1988.


  • E. Lane, Hear the other side (1985) [autobiography]
  • The Times (18 June 1988)
  • The Independent (22 June 1988)
  • private information (1996)
  • personal knowledge (1996)


  • J. Whithall, oils, 1982, Inner Temple, London
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£413,293: probate, 17 Nov 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]