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Why all lawyers should be concerned about the Garrick Club’s vote against female membership

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 13 Jul 2015

Lawyers should be especially bothered by the Garrick Club affirming its ‘men only’ stance on membership, writes the Equal Justices Initiative.

The Garrick Club, a gentlemen’s club in London has voted against allowing women to join as members.

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A motion put forward last week by former Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews to amend the club’s rules to allow women’s membership failed, receiving support from only 50.1 per cent of the members’ vote, below the two-thirds majority needed for the proposal to carry.  One member freely admitted that he voted against the motion in order to preserve the ‘camaraderie’ and ‘banter’ of the all-male atmosphere in the Club.

‘Who cares?’, came the cries. ‘Let the men have their space if they want it – what does it matter?’ Some gleefully saw the vote as a poke in the eye of the ‘PC Brigade’. Others simply pointed to declining support and an aging patronage and suggested that gentlemen’s clubs like the Garrick should be left alone to be what they are – dwindling relics of the past.

So why should we care? And why should lawyers in particular be bothered by the Garrick Club affirming its ‘men only’ stance on membership?

The Garrick Club is well-known for being a forum where members of the legal profession are able to socialise and network with each other. It has been estimated that around 25 per cent of the senior judiciary holds membership at the Garrick Club, including those right at the top such as the current President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Lord Neuberger. In addition to judicial representation, a number of senior legal practitioners are also members – including 11 QCs who reportedly voted against allowing women’s membership.

These men are afforded an opportunity through their membership of the club to spend time with other lawyers and members of the judiciary who may support their own professional aspirations and help them up the ranks. This is an opportunity expressly denied to women.

For a profession that still struggles with inclusion – not only in terms of gender, but also class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability – this has real, tangible impact on the already-dire statistics at the top.

Furthermore, by silently accepting or even supporting the vote, senior figures in the legal profession who are also Garrick Club members perpetuate the message that women in the legal profession implicitly receive every day. You are not welcome here – you can come as a guest, but full membership is the preserve of men.

This is the message sent when we see Lady Hale sitting as the first and only woman justice (as she has sat for the past 11 years) on the House of Lords and now on the UK Supreme Court. This is the message sent by only 17.3 per cent of women being part of the senior judiciary.

This is the message sent by only 12.3 per cent of QCs being women, and of 27.2 per cent of law firm partners being women.

This is the message sent in 2015, by the fact that these inequalities persist, despite more than 20 years of women graduating from law school in equal or greater numbers to their male counterparts.

Irrespective of any tangible benefit that membership of the Garrick Club offers, unquestioning association with a club that exercises such an exclusionary rule cannot be consistent with the commitment to equality and diversity that we are entitled to expect from the leaders of our profession in modern times. A useful and informative test would be for those gentlemen to ask themselves whether they would consider being members of a club which barred entry to individuals based on their race, religion or sexuality.

This is not about abolishing all affinity clubs regardless of their purpose. Some are crucial in the struggle for equality – for example, there are a number of organisations focussed on women in the profession. However, where these differ from the Garrick Club is that their aim and effect is to redress an imbalance, not expressly to perpetuate and entrench it.

As long as women are excluded from opportunity, and as long as this is seen as acceptable, they will always be knocking on the door to power from the outside, at a serious disadvantage to those men who are already inside. That is not a meritocracy – that is a fix. For the few who do manage to penetrate those upper levels, they will continue to be seen as anomalies and outsiders. One wonders whether any of those 11 QCs who voted against the motion will one day find themselves on the Bench and whether they will resent the impact of a female presence on the “banter” and “camaraderie” in the robing room.

By simply accepting the results of the vote, Garrick Club members affirm the message it sends.

The Equal Justices Initiative therefore calls upon any lawyers who are members to commit publicly to bringing about equality and diversity at all levels of the legal profession, and to drive these aims forward in the Garrick Club.

Alternatively, we call on them to distance themselves from the message sent by the vote last week by renouncing their membership until the position changes.

The Equal Justices Initiative is an organisation with the aim of promoting the equal participation of men and women in the judiciary in England and Wales by 2015.