The issue of women in law and more particularly women on the bench acting in judicial roles is one that simmers away constantly. The Guardian’s Joshua Rozenberg in the UK recently took a look at some of the senior women on the UK bench and operating senior positions.
July is always a busy time for the judges as they try to clear their desks ahead of the long summer vacation. So this week, for a change, I have decided to bring you a roundup of stories that might otherwise have gone unreported. I’ll start with the judges’ annual works outing to the City of London, where they are entertained to dinner in the front room of the lord mayor’s tied cottage — otherwise known as the Egyptian Hall of the Mansion House.
• This year, the lord mayor is a solicitor, and only the second woman to hold the post since 1189. Alderman Fiona Woolf pointed out on Wednesday night that, while the gender balance across Council of Europe judiciaries was 52% men and 48% women, in England and Wales women accounted for no more than about 19% of the high court and the court of appeal.
Making his first appearance at the dinner as lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said in response that the courts were making progress on diversity, though it was not as fast as many would wish. He hoped that more City solicitors would join the judiciary, despite the “very considerable attractions of the private sector”.
And Thomas thought it was time to remind foreign litigants of the advantage our system enjoys over its continental rivals. Here, newly-appointed trial judges are likely to have up to 30 years’ experience of the legal issues they are trying. In continental Europe, they will be people in their 20s straight out of judging school, with no specialist expertise.
Thomas had written a witty speech, but some of his fellow judges hadn’t quite worked out when they were supposed to laugh. He was followed by Chris Grayling, wearing a pre-tied white tie, at what is likely to be his last appearance at the dinner as lord chancellor. Steering clear of the jokes completely, Grayling listed his department’s achievements and singled out individual judges for praise. The lord chancellor noted that that there were now 21 women in the high court, the highest figure ever.
One slightly jarring note was Grayling’s wish that he and the judges should meet the challenges of reshaping the courts system, streamlining procedures, harnessing technology and improving diversity by “working together in partnership”. Of course there needs to be cooperation between the lord chancellor and the lord chief justice. But, as Thomas has made clear in the past, the courts are not there to serve the government. When necessary, their job is to hold the government to account. Too much “partnership” makes that job harder.
• Among those who got a name-check from the justice secretary was Lady Butler-Sloss. Grayling wished her the best in her “vital and challenging new inquiry”. But there were not many judges at the dinner who thought she was the right person for the job of chairing the investigation into child abuse allegations.It was not so much that she might pull her punches when investigating any decisions taken by her late brother, Michael Havers, who was attorney general for eight years and lord chancellor for little more than eight weeks. It was not even that, as Mary Dejevsky argued in opposition to Clare Dyer, that Butler-Sloss is too much of an establishment figure. The prevailing view was that, at the age of nearly 81, Butler-Sloss is simply too old to take on what may turn out to be a lengthy, open-ended inquiry. And you don’t have to be an expert in child abuse to investigate a cover-up.
It was not so much that she might pull her punches when investigating any decisions taken by her late brother, Michael Havers, who was attorney general for eight years and lord chancellor for little more than eight weeks. It was not even that, as Mary Dejevsky argued in opposition to Clare Dyer, that Butler-Sloss is too much of an establishment figure. The prevailing view was that, at the age of nearly 81, Butler-Sloss is simply too old to take on what may turn out to be a lengthy, open-ended inquiry. And you don’t have to be an expert in child abuse to investigate a cover-up.
• Another female judge who may well be heading for promotion is Alison McKenna. As principal judge of the charity tribunal, she was due to chair a three-woman panel to hear a recent appeal against a decision by the Charity Commission. One of the lay members was unable to sit so McKenna simply carried on without her.