Equal before the Law Society?

Martin Mears is making enemies with his views on women and 'political correctness'. By Fiona Bawdon
The Law Society's president, Martin Mears, is a self-appointed scourge of "the viper of political correctness". When he addressed a conference of 300 women lawyers he was, he said, conscious of entering the "lionesses' den". In the event, however, he was bitten not by a marauding female, but by an apparently avuncular and docile-looking lion.

David Penry-Davey QC, chairman of the Bar, departed from his set text publicly to rebuke Mr Mears over a speech in which he had suggested that political correctness is rampant in the legal profession. Mr Mears had claimed that, far from women being discriminated against, it was the men who need protection from the "zealots" and "heresy-hunters" seeking "raw material for their whinge factories". Mr Mears said: "It is a nonsense and a fiction to assert that there is any kind of prejudice against women."

But Mr Penry-Davey - not previously known as a militant feminist - did not recognise this view of the legal profession: "We do not think that the major problems are solved. Perhaps we are nearer the beginning of the process than the end." For the gentlemanly world of the law, this was strong stuff, indeed.

Mr Penry-Davey added that the Bar would not be deflected from taking discrimination seriously by accusations of political correctness. "I have spent 30 years at the Bar. Those who know me would not easily recognise any description of me as a trendy lefty or politically correct. Martin, I very profoundly believe you are wrong," Mr Penry-Davey said to applause from delegates

Mr Mears, who was not given an opportunity to respond publicly, seemed undaunted afterwards, branding his critics "the enemy" and adding that he hadn't really been expecting a standing ovation.

This was the second time the two sides of the legal profession - solicitors and barristers - have clashed publicly over equal opportunities. Earlier, Mr Mears had written a newspaper article ridiculing barristers' new anti- discrimination code as "ultra-political correctness" and wondering whether the Bar had "taken leave of its senses". (The then Bar chairman, Peter Goldsmith QC, responded with a none-too-subtle suggestion that Mr Mears might do well to keep his nose out of matters which, as a solicitor, were nothing to do with him.)

Since becoming Law Society president last year - in the first contested election in 40 years - Mr Mears has repeatedly used the public platform this gives him to air a personal philosophy which even supporters have described as "unusual". During his speech last weekend to the second Woman Lawyer conference, organised under the aegis of the Bar and the Law Society, he revisited many of his pet themes.

He condemned the "discrimination industry" with its "staff, premises, middle management, senior management, career structure, corporate identities and conventions"; rubbished the concept of indirect discrimination ("discrimination can now be found to exist regardless of the intention or goodwill of the alleged discriminator"); veered off into attacking women in the armed forces, and bemoaned the "scandal" of the 14-year-old schoolgirl who won damages after she was turned down for a paper round.

"The newsagent admitted his grave offence and gave as his reason for employing only boys that: 'We were only trying to protect her. It is dark in the mornings and there are all sorts of rapists and nutters out there'," said Mr Mears.

It was left to Kamlesh Bahl, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and a fellow member of the solicitors' professional ruling body, to point out that 14-year-old boys are just as vulnerable to "rapists and nutters" as 14-year-old girls. If there is a question over safety, children of both sexes should be equally protected, she said.

Ms Bahl added that Mr Mears' speech had provided a timely "example of certain attitudes that definitely need changing. It is just unfortunate that these attitudes are at the head of our legal profession."

However, Mr Mears' view that men can be victims of discrimination, too, did elicit support from one perhaps unlikely quarter. Helena Kennedy QC - who would surely qualify as one of the "bitter and dangerous enemies in predictable places" that Mr Mears claims are ranged against him - told of a young male would-be barrister applying unsuccessfully for pupillage. His CV was returned with a polite letter saying thanks, but no thanks. However, a scribbled note had inadvertently been left attached to the document, bearing the legend: "Would we really have someone in chambers with a name like Darren?"