Challenge to men-only Garrick club

It was widely reported on 9 September that the Garrick Club, whose membership has included such luminaries as Charles Dickens, A. A. Milne Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, is facing a legal challenge to its exclusion of women from membership. The Guardian reported that Emily Bendell, chief executive and founder of a lingerie company, has instructed Leigh Day solicitors who yesterday sent a pre-action protocol letter threatening action under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act 2010 (s107 & Schedule 9) permits membership associations to restrict membership, associate membership and guest privileges  to persons who share a “protected characteristic” other than colour, but the letter claimed that, because the club runs a restaurant and guest rooms, it is not permitted to refuse women access to them on the same terms as men.

50.5% of Club members voted in 2015 to permit women entry but a two-thirds majority was required for change, the Guardian reporting at the time that members including Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gove, Ken Clarke, Sir Trevor McDonald, Melvyn Bragg and Jeremy Paxman had all indicated that they would vote in favour of admitting women to the club. In September 2020 The Guardian reported the claim of Garrick members “that no networking happens on the premises, and that work meetings are discouraged. They stress that since a large proportion of members are retired, the concern that vital connections are forged here is misplaced”. But in 2011 Baroness Hale told an InterLaw Diversity Forum that the culture at the Garrick “was a key factor in why women did not make the top judicial ranks“, stating that it was “quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick Club, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about.” And in 2015 The Lawyer suggested that “around 25 per cent of the senior judiciary holds membership at the Garrick Club, including those right at the top such as the [then] 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”.

The Lawyer went on to point out in 2015 that “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”.

The Garrick is not the only men-only club which facilitates contact between influential men. Politico reported in 2018 that then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was a member of the men-only Beefsteak Club as were then Foreign Office ministers Alan Duncan, Hugo Swire and Rory Stewart, former Chancellors Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson, and Peter Lilley and Nicholas Soames. Pratts was also home to politicians including Nigel Lawson, former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, former Conservative leader Michael Howard and former Prime Minister John Major. Heseltine, Lamont and Soames were also members of Whites (David Cameron having resigned when he became leader of the Conservative Party) while Nigel Farage was a member of the men-only East India Club. It is perhaps ironic that these organisations remain bastions of male elitism at a time when the focus of much media and political attention is on battles raging about access to rather more prosaic women-only spaces.

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