The barrister at the centre of a national workplace sexism storm has launched a withering attack on Lord Sumption, accusing the Supreme Court judge of seeking to defend an ‘old boys’ network’ in the law.

Calling for the introduction of quotas for silks and the judiciary, Charlotte Proudman says the justice system is suffering because ‘women remain disempowered and distanced from shaping laws that have a direct impact on their lives’.

Shadow justice secretary and former lord chancellor Lord Falconer has also criticised Sumption, describing the judge’s reported comments as ‘deeply worrying’. Falconer also suggests the gender gap could be bridged by appointing more solicitors to the bench. 

Proudman sparked a national debate earlier this month when she published an email conversation between herself and Brown Rudnick partner Alexander Carter-Silk, in which he said: ‘You definitely win the prize for the best Linked in (sic) picture I have ever seen.’

She described the email as ‘unacceptable and misogynistic’ and posted the exchange on Twitter.

Her comments today, in an article for the Guardian, follow an interview earlier this week in which Lord Sumption warned that the drive to increase the gender balance at the top of the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ for justice. Sumption told the London Evening Standard that the judiciary and quality of British justice was a ‘terribly delicate organism’ that could be easily destroyed if male candidates ‘feel that the cards are stacked against them’.

‘Sumption’s concern is not about finding “good enough” women candidates to be QCs and occupy top judicial posts,’ Proudman retorts today. ‘His comments encapsulate his deepest fears that power vested in the old boys’ network could come under siege.’

She adds: ‘Sumption attributed the under-representation of women in the senior ranks of the judiciary to a “lifestyle choice” by women unwilling to tolerate long hours and poor working conditions. That traditional old boys’ networks are part of the reason for lack of women’s progress to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel and the bench he could not even contemplate. “It’s rubbish,” he said.

’It must be pure luck that after securing pupillage through his father, Sumption just happened to be the best candidate for the Supreme Court.’

Proudman argues that ‘meaningful change’ will only occur when lawyers confront the ‘living reality’ of sexism.

‘The truth is that female lawyers are rarely in a position to challenge it without fear of backlash and recrimination,’ she alleges.

In a letter to the Times, Falconer says hearing ’such comments from one of our senior judges is deeply worrying, not least because the record on diversity is already poor’.

In suggesting that it will take 50 years for women to achieve parity on the bench, Sumption is ’sending the (false) signal that this is a closed world’, says Falconer.  

He adds: ’The idea that the lack of female judges is mainly the result of a “lifestyle choice” insulting and leads to the misleading conclusion that nothing can be done about it. A key barrier is the narrow pool from which judges are selected. Only 36% were not barristers. One measure would be to increase recruitment from solicitors, other legal professionals and academics.’

One female barrister rallying to Sumption’s defence, meanwhile, is Sarah Forshaw QC, co-head of chambers at 5 King’s Bench Walk and former leader of the South Eastern Circuit. ’The myth of the “old boys’ network’ was laid to rest many years ago,’ she says, also in a letter to the Times. ’Being female is no longer any barrier to advancement..diversity problems will take a while to filter out but…positive discrimination is patronising to able women.’