The law remains a hostile environment for women. What does that say about the judges supposed to uphold it?
Following in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell, Grayson Perry and Stephen Hawking, this year’s BBC Reith lecturer will be Jonathan Sumption QC, retired supreme court judge, historian, chateau dweller and author, with the eminent Thatcherite Keith Joseph, of Equality (a 1979 polemic against egalitarianism). To date, the choice seems to have been entirely uncontroversial.
“Who better,” asks the controller of BBC’s Radio 4, “than Jonathan Sumptionto take a clear, hard look at the law and how it serves modern society?”
Anyone concerned about the declining representation of wealthy white male seventysomethings at the BBC will be hard put to name a more inspirational candidate. Sumption is almost as famous for his massive brain as he is for opposing positive discrimination in the judiciary.
You might, however, wonder if “a clear hard look at the law and how it serves modern society” shouldn’t, when extended over five lectures, address continuing male dominance of the UK’s courts and how far this hegemonic set-up might vitiate the legal profession’s culture and authority.
The public ought to be able to say ‘they are our judges’, rather than seeing them as ‘beings from another planet’Lady Hale, supreme court president
Women barristers still, after all, report what the Criminal Bar Association called an “increasingly hostile” environment. Many judges still congregate in men-only clubs (Sumption’s is the Beefsteak). “Inherent sexism” features, one woman reports, behaviour reminiscent of a stag-do. The supreme court president and feminist, Lady Hale, argues, of the continuing judicial imbalances, that the public ought to be able to say of the judiciary “they are our judges”, rather than seeing them as “beings from another planet”.
Nor can it help connect with the public when one of these beings, or their apologist, actually speaks alien. From one visitor from Planet Rumpole, we might learn, for instance, that a persecuted woman is “more sensitive than most wives”. Another legal entity instructs us not to “rush to judgment” about the imminent release of John Worboys, the black-cab rapist. From another, we learn that popularity can trump domestic vulnerability. Elsewhere, it is volunteered: “I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife.”
Last week, it fell to Judge Martin Rudland, after his effusions to a domestic abuser, to raise questions about the degree to which the law’s senior brotherhood is acquainted with the concept of female autonomy or with the severity of male violence against women and girls. Could it be connected to the loss of senior women who should challenge – or even replace – them? Handing out a community order to Alexander Heavens, who had terrorised his partner, Rudland reached out. “Put this behind you,” he said, “put her behind you, there are lots more fishes in the sea and watch how you go.”
It would be reassuring, although not, obviously, to the innocent woman Heavens assaulted, if this could be explained as a judicial one-off. “Put it behind you, mate. Lots more cases in the courts. Watch how you go.” There’s no reason, other than the two women murdered each week by a current or former partner, for a judge to forfeit his reputation for a single misspeak about a female victim. However, some previous incidents should possibly be taken into consideration.
2013. Rudland presided over the case in which Michael and Hillary Brewer, former teachers from Chetham’s music school, were convicted of sexual assaults. Frances Andrade, their victim, was subjected to harsh cross-examination in Rudland’s court, comparing it to “being raped all over again”. Later, during the trial, she took her own life. A serious case review subsequently called, among other things, for judges to “be proactive” when a witness is considered vulnerable.
2014. Rudland decided against imprisoning Jon Broni, a dance teacher guilty of having sex with 15-year-old girls. Rudland said the girls had given “fulsome consent”. Following complaints of undue leniency, the court of appeal ruled that Rudland had “quite simply got it wrong”. It gave Broni a four-year sentence.
2018. A convicted paedophile escaped a return to jail after taking more than 600 upskirt photographs of young girls. Rudland said: “These children were blissfully unaware of what you were undertaking.”
2016. But Rudland can be severe. Handing a one-year sentence to a woman, mother of a baby, who drunkenly attacked a man, Rudland said: “Whilst one always strives to prevent young women going to custody, with offences such as this the court is left with no alternative.”
We have to be careful not to do things at a speed that will make male candidates feel the cards are stacked against themJonathan Sumption
Even if, for we know nothing of his background, the above does not amount to a case for keeping Rudland away from the public, at least pending some sort of counselling, it might raise doubts about Sumption’s proposal that sex equality in the judiciary, “a terribly delicate organism”, wait half a century. Too much haste, he warned in 2015, and there could be “appalling consequences”. Though – hang on – maybe Sumption’s fears are being vindicated? Perhaps that rise from 25% to 29% women in the judiciary helps account for the stag-do culture, victim shaming, lenience to predatory men.
Long, anyway, before the world heard much from manosphere heroes such as Jordan Peterson, or Carl Benjamin (currently supplying rape jokes to Ukip), women were being warned by Sumption about the risks of seriously inconveniencing his own sex. “We have got to be very careful,” he said, “not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel the cards are stacked against them.”
It’s not significantly more enlightened, you might think, than Benjamin’s complaint, on a now deleted YouTube video (explaining spree killers): “This is what feminism has wrought – a generation of men who do not know what to do, who are being demonised for what they are.”
Indeed, as we contemplate the horror of this grotesque misogynist ever holding a public office, the British judiciary reminds us, yet again, that Benjamin would not be the first.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist