Lord Falconer, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, has criticised a supreme court judge who claimed that “rushing to achieve gender equality” in the judiciary would have “appalling consequences”.
Lord Sumption (left) and Lord Falconer (right)
Falconer, who served as lord chancellor in the Blair and Brown governments, told BuzzFeed News he was "surprised and dismayed" by Lord Sumption's remarks in a newspaper interview this week.
Sumption – one of 12 supreme court justices, only one of whom is a woman – told the Evening Standard that the judiciary was a "terrific public asset" that could be destroyed if the selection process favoured women.
Sumption told the newspaper he wanted to see gender equality but said campaigners would have to be "patient" as it would take up to 50 years before the number of women matched the total of men on the bar and bench.
"It has to happen naturally," Sumption said. "It will happen naturally. But in the history of a society like ours, 50 years is a very short time."
The judge, who was appointed to the supreme court in 2012 after a highly successful career as a barrister, added: "We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them."
He also dismissed as "rubbish" the suggestion that the law was run by an "old boys' network" and blamed the lack of female judges on a "lifestyle choice" made by women unwilling to work long hours and tolerate poor working conditions.
But Falconer told BuzzFeed News the opposite was true, and warned that the quality of the judiciary will decline if Britain fails to address the gender balance.
"We have a good judiciary in this country, but the glaring problem with the judiciary is the lack of diversity," the Labour peer said. "I think we would have no difficulty doing something about it without in any way making people feel that we were positively discriminating.
"There are more than enough capable women that would make absolutely excellent judges."
Falconer said Sumption's comments were all the more worrying because senior judges are heavily involved in the appointment of other judges. "And this view suggests that senior judges think that to address the gender balance it needs to progress slowly, which is wrong," he said. "It can be done much more quickly.
"I think attitudes among the senior judiciary, such as that expressed by Lord Sumption, will to some extend restrict appointments."
Falconer added that provisions of work need to be more family-friendly, in particular at the Ministry of Justice. Part-time working and job-sharing should become much more normal than they are at the moment, he said.