My latest post for The Times appears on The Experts blog today.
Baroness Hale of Richmond, the only woman judge in the Supreme Court, is “dismayed” that so many judges belong to the Garrick Club. The all-male club’s members include Lord Phillips, the President of the Supreme Court, and a further three of Lady Hale’s fellow Supreme Court justices.
“I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick Club, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about,” she said, addressing an Interlaw Diversity Forum at law firm Norton Rose.
At first glance, membership of a men-only club does not seem worth worrying about. If men want to spend time in the company of other men, as they do at football matches or down the pub, what is wrong with that? Well, women are not barred from pubs or football matches, as they are from the Garrick.
The club was founded in 1831 and its members are elected by secret ballot. Today it is one of the country’s last remaining elite, all-male preserves. Its membership policy apparently discriminates against women, which is of course illegal elsewhere. Prominent human rights lawyer Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, resigned his membership after a vote to admit women was defeated in 2006.
Looking through the many reader comments left on Times Law about Lady Hale’s outburst, I note that plenty are as bemused by her views as her fellow justices are. The (mostly male) commenters focus upon what one calls the “politics of feminism” and point out that there are also plenty of women-only “clubs” such as the Women’s Institute.
However, there is more to Lady Hale’s argument than this.
The Garrick’s current membership is thought to include leading politicians, peers – and at least a quarter of the country’s senior male judges. Lady Hale highlighted the “systemic barriers” preventing other women from reaching the top judicial ranks. One of the barriers she identified is a culture that “depends upon personal network relationships”.
Surely it is no coincidence that even in 2011, the highest courts in the land are handing down decisions that could be seen to discriminate against women? Yes, there are the two Supreme Court decisions in which Lady Hale was the sole dissenter – but there is also the Court of Appeal’s decision in Imerman v Tchenguiz (I have written about this before).
When I read the Imerman judgment, one passage referred to the possible consequences of a wife “infringing” a husband’s confidence by copying a bank statement found in his “own study” in their home! Such an elevated and segregated lifestyle may be commonplace for members of elite boys’ clubs, but it is wholly alien to the rest of us.
Politicians – another group with strong representation at clubs such as the Garrick – are, like judges, vulnerable to intense scrutiny.
The Government recently refused to introduce legislation giving improved legal rights to cohabiting couples. Women – particularly cohabitees who are also principle child-carers, with reduced earning potential – have again been left at a disadvantage.
Early next year, the Law Commission will be making recommendations to the Government in relation to matrimonial property agreements. The smart money is on a draconian stance to become law. Could anyone be blamed for thinking that such a policy will also have its origins and most powerful backers in the cosy club rooms, libraries and dining rooms of the country’s last all-male preserves?
No wonder Lady Hale is dismayed. For our judges, membership of a club such as the Garrick compromises a reputation for diversity and equality that should be beyond reproach.