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September 28, 2015updated 01 Feb 2016 10:36am

Lord Sumption's remarks damn equality and our legal system

By Spear's

Lord Sumption is discriminating against women and the right of merit to succeed in our legal system. He should ‘check his privilege’ says Susan Belgrave

Lord Sumption counsels patience. Patience, stoicism and dignity are usually what is expected of those who face discrimination. Taking a historian’s sweeping view of civilisation, Lord Sumption considers it entirely reasonable to suggest that women lawyers should wait another 50 years before they can expect true equality. After all, 50 years is nothing in a society like ours, he says reassuringly.

It’s funny how those not affected by injustice are always willing to bide their time for it to be rectified. What this means in real terms is that neither I nor my daughter’s generation will see true equality in our working life, just as inequality dogged the lives of my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

The reason for this is that there will be ‘appalling consequences’ if we move too quickly. Only someone who does not feel the appalling consequences of the current situation would prefer the present state of affairs to a future they fear they will no longer control. Lord Sumption should perhaps ‘check his privilege’.

Check the privilege that allows him to say that present and continuing inequality is preferable to a future of equality and justice for both men and women. A comparable sentiment would see the able-bodied telling those with disabilities to wait patiently until we get around to removing all barriers to working life; gay people would twiddle their thumbs while homophobia continued unabated; and Rosa Parks might still be sitting at the back of the bus.

The gulf between those who experience discrimination and those who do not is glimpsed on occasions such as these. It frequently comes with an implicit pride in the current system and those who work in it. The argument goes: we have the brightest legal minds in the judiciary and one of the best legal systems in the world, and if this were to continue for another 50, 75 or 100 years no real harm would be done.

Thus, they say, any attempt to redress the balance risks damaging the justice system and surely would not be worth the risk. Perhaps this is what the flat-earth society thought before Columbus set sail; what the American South thought during the Civil War; and what Republicans feared as Obama was elected.

That Lord Sumption seems to care more about the men who might be disadvantaged if the system changed as opposed to the women who are currently being disadvantaged is particularly galling.

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It’s hard not to think that his reported comments also mask a lack of faith in the ability of women to be able run things as well as those masters of the universe who are currently in charge.

Often the mantra is repeated that appointments must be made on merit. No woman or minority has ever disagreed with this. The distinction is that women and minorities believe we have merit and with merit come rights. The right to succeed here and now. Patience be damned.

Susan Belgrave is a discrimination and employment barrister at 7 Bedford Row chambers

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