“Good lawyers know the law; great lawyers know the judge.” It’s a famous – albeit anonymous – quote, yet one which encompasses all the cynicism which has surrounded (and somewhat defined) the legal profession over the past decades. Accused of being bureaucratic, money-oriented and elitist, for many, it would be easy to assume that the judiciary and legal system – as with so many sectors – have gradually been transformed into another playing field for predominantly rich, white males.
Certainly, these criticisms are such which Lord David Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, does not shy away from. “In the judicial world, we have to be more ready to encourage people to apply for jobs who otherwise wouldn’t,” he asserts,“we have to – in both the judicial world and the legal, professional world – get rid of unconscious bias and, in some areas, the slightly macho atmosphere which encourages, I think, prejudice in favour of men rather than women… But, to some extent, the legal world is typical of the rest of the world. You can’t expect the legal world to put things right on its own. However, as we are concerned with justice, we should be setting an example and be more directed, more determined to deal with it than anybody else.”
“You can’t expect the legal world to put things right on its own”
Indeed, if there’s anyone who really can diversify the judiciary any time soon, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be Lord Neuberger. His credentials read like any Law student’s dream; a Chemistry graduate, he claims that he was “terrible” at the Science (neglecting to mention, of course, that he studied it at Oxford). Originally a merchant banker, he was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn only four years upon graduating in 1974. In his talk, he jokes about our economy’s luck in his move away from banking “otherwise the recession would have happened much earlier” – a statement which, given his qualifications, I struggle to believe whole-heartedly.
From there he went from strength to strength, becoming a Queen’s Counsel in 1987 and a bencher for Lincoln’s Inn in 1993. He held his first judicial appointment as a recorder in 1990, going on to become a High Court Judge in the Chancery Division in 1996 and a Supervisory Chancery Judge in 2000. Neuberger’s influence has perhaps been most potently consolidated within the last decade, becoming a Lord Justice of Appeal in 2004 and a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2007. His election as only the second President of the Supreme Court in 2012 is one which, you’d think, would be the cherry on top of an especially ruthless, egotistical cake. However, it is anything but.
Perched in the corner of the Forum Alumni Auditorium (somewhat fitting given its courtly appearance in Broadchurch last year), surrounded by swathes of excited students, he humbly pins all his success upon his upbringing, citing his father, History Master and particularly his mother as his three greatest inspirations. “I was an argumentative little boy and my mother used to get fed up with me arguing and would say, ‘right, I’ve had enough of this, let’s change sides’ which I think trained me to be a lawyer,” he admits modestly.
Nonetheless, that is not to undermine his ambition; his success certainly has not come without controversy, particularly from the House of Appeal. “When I was a first instance judge, there was a case where the argument was that somebody had got – I can’t remember exactly – but it was 30 acres of farmland by squatting on it for 30 years,” he reflects. “It was a very unattractive, unfair conclusion; I reached it with great regret, and the Court of Appeal said that I’d got it completely wrong. It went to the House of Lords and they said I’d got it right, and I think that slightly marked my card.” Likewise, he references two cases on human rights “which I knew nothing much about”.
“The other two members of the Court of Appeal thought that human rights hadn’t been impinged, and I thought they had. Both cases went to the House of Lords, and on both cases they agreed with me. It was very lucky because not that many cases go to the House of Lords.” It is these three cases which he believes have assisted him in his upward career trajectory, although he humbly acknowledges that it’s “a slightly self-reverential” conclusion.
However, it is perhaps Neuberger’s reflections on issues outside of the legal world which are what have propelled him into the public consciousness. Any Internet search will tell you about his criticisms of the European Court of Human Rights’ “inconsistency” or his stance regarding legal aid cuts: an issue he expands upon in his talk. “One has to accept the demands on government and finances,” he concedes.
However, he agrees that the cuts do “make it more difficult to get into law”. In 2011, his warnings about the risks of social media sites such as Twitter made national news, advising that more restrictions should be placed upon them since they’re “out of control”. In reflecting upon society’s attitudes towards freedom of speech, he acknowledges that, “We all accept freedom of speech has to be curtailed. We all accept that you shouldn’t be free to incite racial hatred; you shouldn’t be free in this hall when it was full of people to shout, ‘fire!’ and therefore it’s a question of degree.” Nonetheless, he does remark that in spite of society being more “liberal” nowadays, the limitations we place on freedom of speech are “dangerous”.
“Freedom of speech,” he claimed, “if it’s only freedom to say things that don’t offend people isn’t really very valuable”. This regard for human rights is one which has translated into Neuberger’s involvement with mental health organisations. He acted both as the Chairman for the Schizophrenia Trust from 2003 to 2013 and is currently a trustee for Mental Health Research UK. This connection partially stems from more personal reasons, growing up with a sister with Down syndrome which “made me aware of [mental health] in a personal way”.
“Freedom of speech – if it’s only freedom to say things that don’t offend people isn’t really very valuable”
However, he is all too conscious of the stigmatisation surrounding mental health: “I think I’ve always felt that mental health is a very tricky problem in the sense that, looking at it as a science, we are at the same stage with mental health as we were with physical health 300 or 400 years ago. We pontificate about it but we don’t know much about it. We still have a slight embarrassment about not really wanting to admit it or know about it or know how to deal with it.” For these reasons, he praises the “important work” of mental health organisations, not least because of his “fascination” with the human brain: “It is such a new science and just reading books about the brain – whether it’s a healthy brain as it were or an unhealthy brain – is just eye-opening. Probably the most complex unit in the whole universe, as far as we know, is the human brain.”
It is this this genuine desire for equality and advancement which is, perhaps, the real key to Lord Neuberger’s success. Far from the stereotypical bureaucrat, his active promotion of diversity belies the traditional views of sceptics, appearing to offer a more advanced modernity to the legal system. However, in spite of such potential, recent cases have only further riddled the system with accusations of prejudice and discrimination. The recent Cheryl James inquest has attracted controversy due to the decision to not investigate the “wider culture of sexual abuse” within the armed forces – a decision which has been reflected in New York with Kesha’s case against sexual abuse in the music industry.
Indeed, with claims that both black and mentally ill people are more likely to be found in prison than at university or in hospitals, it seems that genuine diversity cannot merely be enforced through quotas and judicial employment. In order to reform attitudes within the judiciary, first and foremost, we need to reform those of society.