Margaret Casely-Hayford

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Margaret Casely-Hayford traded her top-notch post as legal head of the country’s favourite up-market department stores to spearhead the leading charity ActionAid UK that works to end global poverty through its support for women and children in extreme poverty..

For over eight years Margaret was the Director of Legal Services and Company Secretary for the John Lewis Partnership until her departure in 2014 when she joined ActionAid UK, Margaret brought about significant changes to John Lewis, one of the UK’s top retail businesses with over £8 billion revenue where she was successful in employing a more cost-efficient legal services model, effective governance and compliance framework for the business. Her evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach garnered recognition. One of her final accomplishments was persuading the government to change the way it taxes the bonus received by the staff, as employees in an employee owned enterprise.  They are eligible for a percentage of the profits each year in annual bonus. However, unlike equity shareholders who do not pay tax on their dividends in the same way, members of employee owned businesses had to pay income tax on their bonuses, until this change was negotiated. Tax relief on such bonus payments is now given on up to £3000 of bonus benefitting lower paid workers; and also benefits members of all employee-owned businesses.

Margaret was born in London in 1959 and comes from a renowned hot-shot family, whose surname she retains. Her grandfather, Joseph, was a barrister, and influential Ghanaian politician and journalist; her uncle, Archie, was a barrister, too, and Attorney-General to the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah – even helping him to write the nation’s constitution after independence; her father, Victor, broke with tradition and despite training as a barrister switched to accountancy. Her siblings are also high achievers: Peter is a television producer, Augustus is a curator and art historian and Joe is a designer.

Margaret read Law at Somerville College, Oxford (the same college as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher) and graduated in 1982. When receiving her BBBA, she recalled revisiting the college and meeting one of her favourite tutors, who asked what she was up to these days. “I’m a partner at a City law firm, “she replied, noticing a look of disappointment on the other woman’s face. She asked her what was wrong and the tutor smiled and said that she was remembering what Margaret had said during her first interview – that she was going to be Secretary General of the UN and that she was one of the people she had really believed in. “Her words have always been in the back of my mind, so going into an organisation now that focuses on humanitarian issues is a step towards where it all began,” Margaret told the awards gathering.    

Her ambition for ActionAid UK as Chair is to help the organisation charged with ending poverty to become more recognisable.

Margaret did her Bar Finals at the Inns of Court School of Law and was called to the Bar in 1983 (Gray’s Inn). After her pupillage, she joined the Association of District Councils as an in-house counsel. However, she missed planning work and in 1986 joined Denton Wilde Sapte (now Dentons), the international law firm and one of the UK’s top 100 law firms, as an employed barrister where she continued doing the planning work she greatly loved.

In 1995 Margaret left Dentons for Berwin Leighton Paisner but was persuaded to return back in 1996 as the joint Head of Planning and Public Law Group (with Stephen Ashworth). In 1998 she became a partner, the first black partner at the firm and possibly the first black female partner of a large City law firm.

Prior to changing the way the Government taxes the bonus of employee owned businesses, in the 1990s Margaret had achieved a similar change of heart by the Bar Council. By 1997 she was frustrated that because she worked for solicitors there was a requirement  to disbar as a barrister in order to qualify as a solicitor at that time. She decided to raise the issue with the Bar Council and enlisted the help of Cherie Booth QC, whose opinion was the same: that there was nothing in the Code of Conduct that required it, and that it effectively prevented counsel from working for law firms. The Bar Council effectively accepted her argument and changed the rules, benefitting many barristers in a similar position ever since.

She left Dentons in 2006 to join John Lewis and two years later she featured in the Power List 2008 – Britain’s 100 most influential black people.  It was said that in her career as a City lawyer she became renowned as one of the country’s foremost planning practitioners. The panel said: “A serial pioneer throughout her career, Margaret has trail blazed wherever she has been.”

Margaret is regarded as one of Britain’s most influential women and was named Business Person of the Year at the inaugural Black British Business Awards (BBBA) in 2014. She said the award was a “wonderful punctuation” to what had been an amazing 30-year career, including being one of the first black women to become a partner at a City law firm.

In June 2017 Margaret became the Chancellor of Coventry University. In 2012, she was appointed as a Non-Executive Director of NHS England and in 2014 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Solicitors Network. 

See Also: 
the Legal Eves section.