Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has claimed that increasing the number of female judges could have “appalling consequences”.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, the 66 year-old former barrister and historian who spectacularly leap-frogged from private practice directly to the Supreme Court said that giving women preferential treatment when selecting judges could “make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them”. He added that “85 per cent of newly appointed judges in France are women because the men stay away” and that such a disparity was “just as bad” as it would be if the number was inverted.
Lord Sumption said the idea that the legal system in Britain was dominated by an “old boys’ network” was “rubbish”. Despite this claim, he admitted that the “lack of diversity is a significant problem”. However, he warned that it “simply can’t be transformed overnight, not without appalling consequence in other directions”.
He called the British justice system “a terribly delicate organism” and said patience would be required before the gender gap could be closed and that it “has to happen naturally”. The Supreme Court justice added that if a rule was introduced that every other judicial appointment had to be a woman, “it would still take us 20 years” before there was a 50/50 gender split.
The lack of women in the judiciary was probably because the jobs were “incredibly demanding in the hours of work and the working conditions are frankly appalling” and there were “more women than men who are not prepared to put up with that”, he claimed.
Lord Sumption’s comments caused considerable backlash among the public and some legal professionals. Birmingham Law School senior lecturer Dr Steven Vaughan took issue with the justice’s claim that equality would “happen naturally” and said that the idea was “plainly wrong”. He cited a 2014 Bar Council study which suggested that “gender balance among all practising barristers is unlikely ever to be achieved”.
In response to widespread and no doubt unwelcome attention, given the notable lack of women at the top of the profession and only one woman – Lady Hale – who sits on the Supreme Court, it released a written statement. “Some of Lord Sumption’s comments appear to have been misunderstood”, it read. Lord Sumption believes “increasing diversity at all levels of the [legal] profession is important” and was simply warning against possible changes to the judicial appointments system “without careful analysis of the full range of potential consequences”.
Many years ago as a law student, I joined Gray’s Inn intending to become a barrister, but fate intervened. I took a year in France and I changed my mind. How glad I am that I did. So as a solicitor, not a barrister, I’ve never had to lose sleep about any Old Boys Network. Being a female solicitor in my own firm means despite the lack of a silver spoon start or knowing someone who could give my career a nudge in an upward direction, I’ve had to do far more than most to establish myself and my firm, and I’ve done it all my way without ever being beholden to anyone. I’ve even got married, had a child, and continued to work how I wanted, baby in tow. I’ve rolled up my sleeves, worked long hard hours for my clients, got the results, and in the process built my firm nationally.
So when somewhat ironically, given my student membership all those years ago, I look out today onto Gray’s Inn Gardens from the top floor of my firm’s building, do you know what? I much prefer it that way.
To read the original interview, click here.