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“The last gasp of the old white male in his ivory tower”: QC condemns Lord Sumption

Barristers attack the Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption for his comments defending gender inequality in the judiciary.

The Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption has been under fire this week for his comments about women in the judiciary.

In an interview with the Standard, he warned that rushing to address gender inequality among top judges “could have appalling consequences for justice”, and insisted it was “rubbish” that an “old boys’ network” runs the law.

He also claimed that the lack of female judges (there is only one in the Supreme Court of 12 justices) was a “lifestyle choice” made by women unwilling to face long hours and tough working conditions.

Sumption, described only last month as “the brain of Britain” by the Guardian, has faced a wave of criticism from lawyers for his remarks, the most recent of which comes from Felicity Gerry QC.

Gerry, a high-profile criminal barrister, slams Sumption’s comments as “the last gasp of the old white male in his ivory tower”.

She points out that she has been a barrister for 21 years, and has three children, and tells me it’s “simply wrong” to assume the Bar is not compatible with being a mother.

“I find this insulting,” she says of Sumption’s suggestion that women are put off by the “lifestyle”. “The suggestion that women don't work as hard as men is the obvious implication. The suggestion that the Bar cannot be managed if you have a family is simply wrong, and I can tell you that because I've done it – and most of the women at the Bar are doing it . . .

“It’s better now than it was. There are more reconstructed men than dinosaurs. There are more women in the robing rooms, albeit not so many at the higher level. And there are more women who are open about their family life. When I started at the Bar, a lot of the women senior to me didn't discuss their children in the robing room – largely because they had to work in an environment where they almost had to pretend they didn't have any family duties.

“So I do think it's got better. I do think potentially this is the last gasp of the old white male in his ivory tower.”

Gerry believes one of the major causes of women leaving the legal profession is gender inequality – “the idea that women are not given the opportunity to shine is entrenched in the legal profession . . . They’re often pushed into less well-remunerated roles, which does make it more difficult to maintain both your role as a mother and at the Bar because in order to be at the Bar you have to pay for full-time childcare. The best-paid work goes to the men . . . The people at the top are men.”

She adds: “I’d be very grateful if he [Sumption] could spend his intellectual time supporting women and finding solutions rather than seeking to keep women down, and prevent them moving on.”

The barrister Charlotte Proudman, who recently made headlines speaking out against a fellow lawyer admiring her LinkedIn profile picture, has written about institutional sexism in the legal profession for the NS.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.