“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.

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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.