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John Vander Luit

Editor, Solicitors Journal

A question of Truss

A question of Truss


Is sexism really behind the criticism of Liz Truss' appointment, or are lawyers simply twice bitten, thrice shy when it comes to non-lawyers in the role of Lord Chancellor, asks John van der Luit-Drummond

Is sexism really behind the criticism of Liz Truss' appointment, or are lawyers simply twice bitten, thrice shy when it comes to non-lawyers in the role of Lord Chancellor, asks John van der Luit-Drummond

The legal profession is sexist. That is the accusation levelled at those who dare to criticise the appointment of Liz Truss as the UK's first female Lord Chancellor.

On the face of it, those making that statement are correct. The statistics speak for themselves. Sexual harassment and discrimination is still rife at the Bar, with 40 per cent of female barristers complaining of bullying behaviour, and pupillages are still dominated by white, male graduates, despite more women enrolling on the Bar professional training course.

Just 21 per cent of Magic Circle partners and 19 per cent of their Silver Circle counterparts are female, despite research showing women make up 49 per cent of all solicitors and two-thirds of those practising under the age of 35. The pervasive culture of presenteeism and the prioritisation of work over family make it difficult for many women to break through the profession's glass ceiling.

But is sexism really behind the criticism of Truss' appointment? In the Spectator, Isabel Hardman writes that the quick reaction to the appointment suggests some lawyers have a bigger problem with women than with non-lawyers rising to one of the great offices of state. But is this a revisionist interpretation of the profession's history with non-lawyers in high office?

The decision to make Chis Grayling the first non-lawyer Lord Chancellor in over 400 years was questioned and ridiculed at the time. Writing in the Guardian, Joshua Rozenberg said Grayling's only qualifications for the role were that he was 'perceived to be right-wing and once shadowed prisons'. Meanwhile, David Allen Green posited in the New Statesman that 'the appointment of a mere sloganeer' would only make an already crisis-hit justice system even worse.

Likewise, the announcement that Michael Gove was to succeed 'Failing Grayling' was greeted with equal, if not greater, dread. Although many commentators, such as former Conservative MP and barrister Jerry Hayes, urged the then justice secretary be given time, Gove's views on capital punishment and the 'conspiracy of legal aid' did not endear him to the profession.

And so we reach the criticism of Truss, which began with Lord Faulks' resignation as justice minister. Explaining his decision in the Times, Faulks cited Truss' inexperience and lack of 'clout', and questioned whether she would be able to stand up to the prime minister 'for the rule of law and for the judiciary… without fear of damaging her career'.

Faulks' comments were echoed by Lord Falconer, who said the appointment of 'an ambitious middle-ranking minister' was 'worrying'. He even suggested that by failing to consider section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, Theresa May had broken the law in appointing Truss. This is not a new argument from the Labour peer, who made the same claim against the appointments of both Grayling and Gove earlier this year.

The chair of the justice select committee, Bob Neil, has also been accused of 'thinly veiled misogyny' after saying there was concern that, without a legal background or the experience of a senior cabinet member, Truss would not be able to fulfil her new role.

Many practitioners that I have spoken to, while happy to see a woman on the Ministry of Justice throne, have also voiced concern that Truss lacks the 'gravitas' for the role, and, unlike with those who came before, confusion as to what to expect from her.

Truss' predecessors were political appointees: Grayling the Tory attack dog; Gove the dalek. Both set on a path of breaking up the vested interests of the legal profession. But what about Truss? She is an unknown quantity and that is a problem for lawyers. Now that she has given her first speech as Lord Chancellor, there will be some who will see her silence on legal aid and human rights as deafening and a portent of things to come.

The profession's experience of non-lawyer Lord Chancellors already ranges from unmitigated disaster to 'well, at least he was better than Grayling'. It is not misogynistic for lawyers to call for an end to a failed experiment. But then again, who knows. Maybe Truss will prove her doubters wrong. If she doesn't, they'll be the first to tell her.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal @JvdLD