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Controversy as top judge says rushing gender equality could have “appalling consequences”

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A Supreme Court Judge has sparked criticism by speaking out against society’s desire to push gender equality in the legal world.

Speaking to the Evening Standard, Lord Sumption cautioned against bowing to pressure to place more women in senior judicial positions, saying that it could stand to destroy the “delicate balance” of the legal system.

He suggested that the process of equality in the judiciary must happen naturally, and that it could take up to 50 years.

Sumption, 64, who became one of twelve Supreme Court judge in 2012, previously had a career as one of the country’s most highly paid and celebrated barristers.

The legal profession is often criticised for being an old boys’ club, which restricts the progress of women. Statistics tend to support this claim, with women making up only 25% of all judges. Baroness Hale is currently the only female Supreme Court judge.

Lord Sumption dismissed any “old boys’ club” accusations, saying these are “rubbish”, citing, instead, the “lifestyle choices” of women as the reason behind any disparity.

He warned about the “appalling conditions” of the roles, which might appeal less to female candidates, saying:

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Lord Sumption

“The Bar and the solicitors’ profession are incredibly demanding in the hours of work and the working conditions are frankly appalling. 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,” he says.

Sumption emphasised his support of gender equality in the law, saying he wants to remove the “hidden barriers to the progress of women” but pressed that to reach a stage where the number of women on the Bench equalled that of men would take a long time.

“These things simply can’t be transformed overnight, not without appalling consequence in other directions,” he says, adding:

“It’s a tradition which you can destroy very easily and never recreate, not without waiting for a very long time. It would be very unfortunate.”

Sumption said that instead of forcing the balance, it must happen naturally:

“The change in the status and achievements of women in our society, not just in the law but generally, is an enormous cultural change that has happened over the last 50 years or so.”

“It will happen naturally. But in the history of a society like ours, 50 years is a very short time.”

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His comments appeared to focus on concerns that increasing the number of female judges could put-off potential male candidates, saying:

“85 per cent of newly appointed judges in France are women because the men stay away. 85 per cent women is just as bad as 85 per cent men.”

Lord Faulkner, the shadow justice secretary, told BuzzFeed News that he was “surprised and dismayed” by Lord Sumption's comments, saying:

“There are more than enough capable women that would make absolutely excellent judges.”

Following Lord Faulkner's criticism, a spokesperson from the Supreme Court has insisted Sumption’s comments have been misinterpreted, saying:

“The full quotes make clear that he believes that increasing diversity at all levels of the profession is important, and that the range of hidden barriers to improving diversity... present a very complex problem.”

“Nowhere did he try and reduce this to a simple question of ‘lifestyle choice’."

"The concern he expressed was against introducing any form of positive discrimination to the judicial appointments system without careful analysis of the full range of potential consequences.”

Images: Rex Features, Thinkstock

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