Why I’m not bothered by the Garrick’s vote against female membership

Does the fact that I cannot join the Garrick fill me with dismay? Not at all.

I was once “put forward” for membership of another Club, years ago. I can’t even recall which one it was – the Athenaeum, possibly. I decided that forking out a joining fee of £1,500 plus an annual membership fee wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my money.  Instead, I enjoy membership of the Bar’s oldest sporting club, the Pegasus Club: a snip at only £10 a year.

The Equal Justices Initiative (not to be confused with the Equal Justice Initiative, an American non-profit which represents indigent defendants and prisoners) has been protesting the Garrick’s recent decision not to admit women members.

It claims, rather extravagantly, that all lawyers should be concerned at this. The fact is that many lawyers are too busy worrying about the fate of the criminal justice system and Legal Aid to care about this little spat.

The EJsI’s case is that some male lawyers, who are Garrick Club members, get to hobnob with other lawyers and judges who “may support their professional aspirations and help them up the ranks.” They complain that “this has real, tangible impact on the already dire statistics at the top” of the judiciary. They also complain that every day “women in the legal profession implicitly receive” the message “You are not welcome here.”  Finally, they insist that legal preferment is fixed by men, for men, and that meritocracy is a mirage.

This is nonsense. Does the Equal Justices Initiative seriously think that lawyers only network within the four walls of the Garrick? There is a great proliferation of lawyers’ groups these days. Lord Neuberger isn’t going to write you a reference because you met him at the Garrick, though he might agree to do so if you have appeared before him in the Supreme Court. As for women “not being welcome” in the world of law, this is preposterous. I have practised in five different sets of chambers since 1987, and I have never encountered anti-woman attitudes.

The EJsI opinion also ignores the reality of public appointments processes today. They have nothing to do with what clubs you may belong to. To apply to become a QC, you need to fill out a 67-page form detailing your twelve top cases, demonstrating your excellence across six competencies, and providing the names of up to 36 assessors who have witnessed your work. It takes two to three weeks simply to fill out the form! There is an annual competition for silk, run by the QC Appointments panel. The present Chair is a laywoman.

Assessors have to fill out an assessment form on candidates, expressly addressing the competencies. In the latest appointment round, 58 per cent of female applicants were offered silk, as opposed to only 38 per cent of male applicants. This is not a system that is stacked against women.

Similarly, applicants for judicial appointments have to fill out an online form, detailing how they meet the competency framework.  All judicial vacancies are advertised by the Judicial Appointments Commission, which does the selecting. Eight of the fifteen Commissioners are female.

The EJsI argues that lawyers should take the Garrick in hand, or resign their membership. They are prepared to allow what they quaintly call “affinity clubs” to exist – but only if they exist to “redress an imbalance, not expressly to perpetuate and entrench it.”

This misses the point. A club like the Garrick is where some individuals choose to spend some leisure time. This is where the rights to a private life, and to freedom of association, kick in. Other men (including a former trainee of mine) choose to spend it playing five-a-side soccer after work.

The Garrick Club’s aims and objectives rightly do not concern themselves with the gender make-up of the legal professions or of the judiciary. Would you join a club that excluded people on grounds of their race or sexuality, asks the writer rhetorically. Has she not heard of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, for example?

The worst thing about this piece is its menacing tone. Implicitly, the EJsI is telling any lawyer or judge who is a Garrick member that he will be smeared as anti-equality, unless he marches to the EJsI’s drum. Ironically, it is a self-appointed élite group based at Queen Mary’s College. Its Executive Committee numbers twelve, of whom only two are men: hardly a model of gender parity. Its supporters’ list also consists largely of academics. Of course, academics are eligible for judicial appointment if they meet the competencies: so why don’t they apply, instead of railing against a private club?

Barbara Hewson is barrister at 1 Gray’s Inn Square. She was a founder member and past Chair of the Association of Women Barristers. Her views here are personal.

Previously: Why all lawyers should be concerned about the Garrick Club’s vote against female membership