Equal in the eyes of the law

Piers Ford talks to Martin Bowley QC, a spokesman for gay rights in the legal profession

Piers Ford
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:49

Scratch a silk's surface and you would hardly expect to find an agent provocateur beneath, far less a distinguished criminal barrister talking openly about his sexuality and anxious to see his profession take a tougher line on matters of equality.

After nine years of committee service on the Bar Council, the last two of them as treasurer, Martin Bowley QC has shaken off the constraints of office. At the age of 58, he has established a new role for himself as a spokesman for gay rights within the legal profession. He is also making the most of his new found freedom to speak out on a range of issues which he feels the profession should address.

Mr Bowley attracted attention for the inaugural Stonewall lecture, which he presented in his capacity as president of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group (Blagg) at Gray's Inn last December. It was a powerfully reasoned call for equality, both within the profession itself and within the law.

"I'm now free to say things which I've been saying in private for many years," he says. "On the Bar Council, particularly as an officer, I was to a degree bound by cabinet responsibility. I couldn't be heard publicly to disagree with the chairman."

In November, Mr Bowley wrote a stern critique of the current means of governing the legal profession in Counsel, the Bar Council's magazine. "My own analysis is that to have six competing authorities [the Bar Council itself, the Senate and the four Inns of Court] trying to run the profession with different agendas and differing priorities is hugely wasteful in resources - both human and financial," he wrote.

Disappointed that nobody has picked up his gauntlet, Mr Bowley is undaunted and continues to speak out at every opportunity, while continuing his career as a practising barrister.

Last month he gave a speech to the Bedfordshire Law Society in which he decried the capping of the legal aid budget and the likely effect of cutting the incomes of publicly funded lawyers, crisis funding for law students and the topical issue of judicial appointments.

It is here, as one of the few openly gay senior members of his profession, that Mr Bowley can contribute some of his personal experience to the debate. He was a prime mover behind the scenes last May in the weeks leading up to the Lord Chancellor's statement that, in future, judicial appointments would be made regardless - inter alia - of the sexual orientation of the candidates. It was an announcement that anticipated the Home Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into judicial appointments.

"I suspect the debate has really been led by questions on the under-representation on the bench of women and ethnic minorities," he says. "I doubt if they really expected the issue of sexual orientation to arise. I do know some of the pressures that were brought to bear on the Lord Chancellor's Department before the announcement was made, although I can't talk about those in public, even now."

Mr Bowley's personal interest in this issue dates back to June 1985, when, having been a full Recorder for some five years, he was invited to attend an interview at the Lord Chancellor's Department to discuss his professional future. Questioned on his sexuality by Tom Legg, then head of judicial appointments, he was told that the Lord Chancellor's policy was that homosexuals should not be given full-time judicial appointments "since they were particularly vulnerable to public and private pressures, given the current state of public opinion". He should not expect to be offered further judicial office.

Insult was added to injury in 1988 thanks to the Sun, which outed Mr Bowley, causing him to resign his recordership. Although he survived this setback to continue his distinguished membership of the Bar Council, there are those among his peers who say privately that it fatally damaged his prospects of achieving even higher status.

There are no outward signs of bitterness, but it is likely that his experiences now motivate the vigour of his campaign for change.

Despite the fact that in the intervening decade the Lord Chancellor's Department has apparently modified its views, saying that it is now unlikely that barristers' confidential files should contain reference to sexual orientation because it is not an issue, Mr Bowley will not be satisfied until he can be sure that all such references have been removed. After all, his conversation with Tom Legg was still on file when he requested a copy of it in November 1993. He has now submitted his experiences as written evidence to the select committee.

He certainly doesn't favour positive discrimination. In fact, he regards the whole issue of monitoring as deeply important. "I understand the Lord Chief Justice is less than enthusiastic about monitoring judges, believing it to be a serious intrusion into judicial independence. Monitoring goes much beyond sex, sexuality or ethnic origin, to performance itself. Aren't we all monitored in our professions these days, without compromising our independence? We're all criticised from time to time and given the opportunity to respond. I don't understand, quite frankly, why judges are in such a special position."

In his speech to the Bedfordshire Law Society, Mr Bowley went as far as to call for the establishment of a judicial appointments board to include a substantial lay element, which would advertise for candidates, monitor judicial behaviour, consider complaints and have the ultimate power of removal.

"I hope that the inquiry will provide some kind of long overdue critique of the system," he says. "A lot of people have been getting on the bandwagon. There's been a very powerful response from the Association of Women Barristers, which is very much in line with my thinking - getting rid of secrecy, patronage and the prevalence of male clubbism. It won't happen all at once, but it starts a debate which hasn't really occurred before."

According to a Home Office spokesman, it will probably be the summer recess at the earliest before the select committee posts a report on its findings. Until then, Mr Bowley will take every opportunity to promote debate. "We might as well take advantage of it while we can," he says. "It won't last, of course. I shall be dead mutton very quickly."

That does not seem likely. Mr Bowley's charm and compassionate reasoning will make him an important and provocative commentator on the legal profession for some time to come.

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