The Experts: The Garrick Club does a disservice to all judges, male or female

The Experts - The Times

My latest post for The Times appears on The Experts blog today.

Baroness Hale of Richmond, the only woman judge in the Supreme Court, is “dismayed” that so many judges belong to the Garrick Club. The all-male club’s members include Lord Phillips, the President of the Supreme Court, and a further three of Lady Hale’s fellow Supreme Court justices.

“I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick Club, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about,” she said, addressing an Interlaw Diversity Forum at law firm Norton Rose.

At first glance, membership of a men-only club does not seem worth worrying about. If men want to spend time in the company of other men, as they do at football matches or down the pub, what is wrong with that? Well, women are not barred from pubs or football matches, as they are from the Garrick.

The club was founded in 1831 and its members are elected by secret ballot. Today it is one of the country’s last remaining elite, all-male preserves. Its membership policy apparently discriminates against women, which is of course illegal elsewhere. Prominent human rights lawyer Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, resigned his membership after a vote to admit women was defeated in 2006.

Looking through the many reader comments left on Times Law about Lady Hale’s outburst, I note that plenty are as bemused by her views as her fellow justices are. The (mostly male) commenters focus upon what one calls the “politics of feminism” and point out that there are also plenty of women-only “clubs” such as the Women’s Institute.

However, there is more to Lady Hale’s argument than this.

The Garrick’s current membership is thought to include leading politicians, peers – and at least a quarter of the country’s senior male judges. Lady Hale highlighted the “systemic barriers” preventing other women from reaching the top judicial ranks. One of the barriers she identified is a culture that “depends upon personal network relationships”.

Surely it is no coincidence that even in 2011, the highest courts in the land are handing down decisions that could be seen to discriminate against women? Yes, there are the two Supreme Court decisions in which Lady Hale was the sole dissenter – but there is also the Court of Appeal’s decision in Imerman v Tchenguiz (I have written about this before).

When I read the Imerman judgment, one passage referred to the possible consequences of a wife “infringing” a husband’s confidence by copying a bank statement found in his “own study” in their home! Such an elevated and segregated lifestyle may be commonplace for members of elite boys’ clubs, but it is wholly alien to the rest of us.

Politicians – another group with strong representation at clubs such as the Garrick – are, like judges, vulnerable to intense scrutiny.

The Government recently refused to introduce legislation giving improved legal rights to cohabiting couples. Women – particularly cohabitees who are also principle child-carers, with reduced earning potential – have again been left at a disadvantage.

Early next year, the Law Commission will be making recommendations to the Government in relation to matrimonial property agreements. The smart money is on a draconian stance to become law. Could anyone be blamed for thinking that such a policy will also have its origins and most powerful backers in the cosy club rooms, libraries and dining rooms of the country’s last all-male preserves?

No wonder Lady Hale is dismayed. For our judges, membership of a club such as the Garrick compromises a reputation for diversity and equality that should be beyond reproach.

 

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

View more from this author

12 comments

D. Smithies - October 18, 2011 at 5:08pm

When I was at college, one of our politics tutors – ex-Clerk to the Parliaments, and a Garrick member – took a small group of us to the Garrick after a Parliament trip. We girls were escorted up the back staircase, whilst the boys were permitted to go up the main staircase at the front. We fell into conversation with an elderly and distinguished gentleman, whose name has regrettably slipped my memory. He was something to do with the Chief Whip’s office. We asked what that entailed, and he said, “you know when things are said to come about ‘through the usual channels’? Well, I’m the usual channels.” Never forgotten! (I should add in fairness that we all had a wonderful evening.)

Graham - October 19, 2011 at 12:01pm

I have made it my policy (just now) to leave places where feminism comes up. It has caused so much trouble in my life I think all I can do is vote with my feet on the subject rather than engage in an argument which is destructive and will not help anything. So, I’m off, and won’t be coming back, thanks, ‘bye.

Marilyn Stowe - October 19, 2011 at 6:23pm

Graham, I’m sorry to read that because I’ve really enjoyed your comments although most of them I don’t agree with.

The point of this post though, is nothing to do with feminism. It’s about discrimination and segregation and it disturbs me a lot.

It wasn’t easy writing this post, believe me. I knew full well exactly who I was criticising and it actually took courage. Lots of others wouldn’t do it. But honesty and integrity is part of being a lawyer – if not most of it – and it’s a point that needs to be made.

I’ve unfortunately encountered discrimination all my life, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so. I’ve learned to ignore it mostly.

But I have massive faith in our legal system and if I see something that I think just isn’t right then I must say so.

Regards

Marilyn

Graham - October 20, 2011 at 12:04pm

Thanks.

It was about feminism. One last point, the law isn’t bad cos it is sexist as you say (you are biased), it is just bad law.

I could give lots of examples, one of which is the woman who posted of her concerns for her son who was separating after co-cohabiting, or similar. So stand by what I said (that this is sexist, as is feminism).

Graham - October 20, 2011 at 12:12pm

p.s. All the best, thanks anyway.

Sid - October 21, 2011 at 10:04pm

What utter twaddle. Women are NOT “barred’ from the Garrick. A group of men have chosen to get together to eat and drink etc., and not a mixed group of men and women. Why shouldn’t they? leave them alone!

Marilyn Stowe - October 22, 2011 at 3:47pm

Hey Sid,
I never said they were. So…How about you proposing me for membership? I live in Covent Garden much of the week so it would be very convenient for me…….?
Marilyn

Sid - October 23, 2011 at 8:02pm

That’s exactly my point! The men don’t always want to mix with women. Why shouldn’t they do as they wish? why shouldn’t they be allowed male-only company when they want it? Proposing you for membership isn’t allowed – cos you’re a woman! Anyway, i’m not a member.

Marilyn Stowe - October 23, 2011 at 8:56pm

I would quite like to join the Garrick club! I’m sure it would be great fun, but although you Sid could apply if you wished and I suspect would have no problem, I can’t even apply.
My main point is that the Judiciary shouldn’t be members of a club that won’t allow women to join. I think that is discrimination pure and simple and I’m entitled to that view as I’m a woman.
If the Judges were private citizens then of course they could do what they want. But they aren’t. They head our independent judiciary, they are required to uphold diversity, freedom from discrimination and so on in law. As public figures therefore, they shouldn’t be tacitly approving discrimination against women in their private lives.
Lady Hale has rightly highlighted the issue.

Graham - November 4, 2011 at 11:56am

Yes, I want to join the WI too (not) but they wouldn’t have me either.

Marilyn Stowe - November 4, 2011 at 7:42pm

As to the WI, I wouldn’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member (Groucho Marx)

Leave a comment