Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption has warned that a push to increase the gender balance at the top of the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ for justice.
In an interview with the London Evening Standard, Sumption said that the judiciary and quality of British justice was a ‘terribly delicate organism’, that could be easily destroyed.
‘We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them.
‘If we do that we will find that male candidates don’t apply in the right numbers.’ In France, 85% of newly appointed judges are women ‘because the men stay away’, he said, adding that ‘85% women is just as bad as 85% men’.
Sumption (pictured) said that the tradition of barristers at the end of their careers at the bar going on to become judges is a ‘terrific public asset’.
‘It’s a tradition which you can destroy very easily and never recreate, not without waiting for a very long time,’ he said.
To avoid any problems, he said, campaigners needed to be patient, and allow things to ‘happen naturally’.
The newspaper quoted Sumption, who joined the Supreme Court in 2012, as saying the main reason for the lack of female judges was the ‘high attrition rate’ among female lawyers due to the demanding hours and poor working conditions in the barristers’ and solicitors’ professions.
‘There are more women than men who are not prepared to put up with that. As a lifestyle choice, it’s very hard to quarrel with it, but you have to face the consequence which is that the top of the legal profession has fewer women in it than the profession overall does.’
Sumption rebutted claims that the traditional ‘old-boys’ network’ of the bar was restricting female progressing, insisting the bar is a ‘very meritocratic profession.’
‘The same applies at every level, for getting silk and going to the bench. I was a judicial appointments commissioner for six years. I’m sure we made mistakes, but we went to an enormous amount of trouble to choose the best candidates possible.’
His comments attracted immediate criticism.
Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers told the Gazette: ‘To see him say that it is women's lifestyle choices, and in particular their reluctance to work long hours, that is the barrier to women reaching the top ranks of the judiciary suggests there are no structural barriers impeding women’s professional progress.’
She warned that this suggestion is a ‘recipe for complacency’, and questioned whether Sumption is qualified to speak on this topic. ‘It is unfortunate that the opinion he has chosen to express has a potential adverse consequence that suggests nothing needs to change,’ she said.
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘The Law Society strongly encourages equality and diversity at all levels of the legal sector. Increasing the representation of underrepresented groups within the judiciary can only be a benefit to the diverse population we serve.’