UK Supreme Court starts work…

// 1 October 2009

And guess how many are women? Yep tokenism is alive and well – the only woman on the panel of twelve judges (although one seat is unfilled) is Brenda Hale (Baroness Hale of Richmond) who was also the first (and so far only Law Lord) to be appointed. She’s had an illustrious career but comes firmly from an establishment, middle-class background (parents headteachers, educated at Girton, academic career…).

And guess how many aren’t white? Sadly not even tokenism appears to stretch to the inclusion of a black, asian or other minority ethnic judge (as far as I can tell checking biogs and pictures online).

As ever, if you drill down to who is doing the administrative work there is more diversity with the senior executive team having seven women (out of ten posts) one of whom (Head of Judicial Support) is from a minority ethnic group.

So why should we care? Well because the Supreme Court is the final Court of Appeal in the UK now and will make decisions on unresolved or tricky/arguable points of law (like when is consent actually consent, for example). A Supreme Court so hopelessly unrepresentative that you have to question whether thirty years of equality legislation has actually had any impact at all. In other words – rich white men continue to make decisions whilst women and minority ethnic workers are exiled into lower status, lower paid, less powerful jobs (I’d put money on the fact that their cleaners at the swanky, newly refurbed Middlesex Guidhall are generally women and generally from minority ethnic groups!).

Read more about the Supreme Court hereup and some of the debate around it’s establishment here (BBC), here (JUSTICE), here (Law Gazette) and here (Scotsman).

Comments From You

Feminist Avatar // Posted 1 October 2009 at 9:54 am

Did you also notice how the Scottish judges are described as practising in Scotland; the Irish judges in Ireland; and the English and Welsh judges just practised law, and were called to ‘the bar’, except for the women who was called to the ‘Manchester bar’- which doesn’t exist, but nicely limits her place to a local region; unlike all those men who either practised nationally or presumably in all times and places as they just practiced ‘law’ [aren’t they great?].

Jennifer Drew // Posted 1 October 2009 at 12:04 pm

Patriarchy is alive and thriving ‘very nicely thank you!’ I see despite decades of feminist activism the old boys network continues unabated and no it is not feminists’ fault. The central issue is challenging male power and because challenging male power goes right to the heart of patriarchal society, this is why the UK Supreme Court is 99.5% male with subordinate, administration and other ‘feminised’ roles taken up by women – not men!

So issues concerning women’s rights will continue to be decided by white, powerful heterosexual men. No wonder male sexual violence against women continues to be trivialised and/or invisibilised. No, I’m not forgetting non-white groups because women comprise these groups too.

Jonny Wright // Posted 1 October 2009 at 12:58 pm

To be fair, you only get to be a senior judge when you’re in your 50s and 60s, after a long and experienced career in law. So the current makeup of the new Supreme Court reflects the social inequalities in our society decades ago. If the Supreme Court in 30 years time is still so unrepresentative, then we’ll have failed miserably as a society. But at the moment I don’t think there’s much we can do. You can’t start putting less experienced and less qualified female and ethnic minority judges in there to try and redress the balance – that really would be tokenism.

Frances // Posted 1 October 2009 at 1:04 pm

It’s this statement that particularly sticks in my throat, from Baronness Hale’s biography: “A home maker as well as a judge, she thoroughly enjoyed helping the artists and architects create a new home for The Supreme Court.”

A home-maker?? As in, don’t worry aside from being a formidable academic, law reformer and the highest ranking female judge in the land, she also likes looking at cushions and throws. She is still a woman after all. I just don’t think they’d have dared with any of the others, it would have been phrased as a keen interest in architecture, or design, or something suitably serious sounding.

The make up of the Supreme Court merely reflects the make-up of the old House of Lords, because they merely plucked them from where they sat previously and plonked them in this new building. The issue is, where are the women or minority ethnic court of appeal judges, judges and lawyers who can be promoted up to more senior positions.

David Kames // Posted 1 October 2009 at 1:42 pm

more information on diversity (lack there of) in the Judiciary available here:

from Baroness Hales’ biog:

“A home maker as well as a judge, she thoroughly enjoyed helping the artists and architects create a new home for The Supreme Court.”

woodscolt // Posted 1 October 2009 at 2:14 pm

I appreciate the sentiment of this piece, but tokenism? Describing the appointment of one woman to the Supreme Court as tokenism suggests that she wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have to pander to us pesky feminists, always wanting women to be, like, fairly represented. Sexism is alive and well – that’s why there’s only one woman, but describing a professional woman with a long career in the law as a ‘token’ is problematic, I think.

CMK // Posted 1 October 2009 at 7:55 pm

I think Jonny W has a fair point, it takes many decades to reach the pinnacle of your profession especially one such as the Law. The fact that ten percent of the court is female is IMHO very encouraging – clearly a long way to go but it is better than you might expect. Given the high numbers of women entering the legal profession I am sure we’ll see these numbers reversed pretty quickly.

I am not sure how you can describe the appointment of Baroness Hale as tokenistic when you also state she has had a long and illustrious career or are you suggesting others have been held back (which is certainly an option)?

I have no issue with white men making decisions about women’s rights if they are the best qualified people to do so (in terms of training etc). I do not believe that a properly equipped judge will decide differently from another of a different race/gender.

If we take the view that race/gender is a factor in judicial decisions then surely we should ensure that all the appropriate groups are involved in every decision….

Dwysan // Posted 1 October 2009 at 11:36 pm

This blog was referred to on SKY news tonight! Well done!!!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 1 October 2009 at 11:55 pm

Women have been practising law in Britain since the 1870s and been called to the bar since the 1920s. Women in their 50s and 60s today, where born in the 1950s and 60s, and went to university in the late 60s and 70s. In the 1980s, between 13-16% of solicitors were women; by the 90s is was a third.

1/12 is 8%- even 2/12 only brings us up to parity with the number of women solicitors in the 1980s, let alone in later decades.

Could we seriously only find one qualified woman?

Laurel Dearing // Posted 2 October 2009 at 11:05 am

its strange how nearly every show/film with a judge in i can think of is black or female or both.

Jonny Wright // Posted 2 October 2009 at 11:42 am

Just to follow on from CMK’s comment – I am at law school currently, training to be a barrister, and the student body seems to be well balanced. More than half of my classmates are women, and a high percentage of students are from ethnic minorities. The standard seems to be very high overall and it is clear that everyone is there on merit.

There are very good reasons to hope that the next few generations of lawyers (and Supreme Court Justices) will be more representative than the current one. But lawyers of my age will not be holding the top judicial roles until around 2040!

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