Barristers fall out over Middle Temple LGBTQ+ qualifying session

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By Aishah Hussain on

Huge trans rights row divides the bar

Middle Temple

A row has broken out among barristers on Twitter over the inclusion of a gender critical lawyer at an LGBTQ+ panel discussion scheduled to take place this evening at Middle Temple.

An open letter from more than 100 members of the Inn, other barristers and law students called for the inaugural Middle Temple LGBTQ+ forum debate, ‘The fight to ban gay conversion therapy’, to be postponed after a row broke out over the speaker line-up.

Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall, the campaign organisation that supports gender identity views, was set to be the guest speaker at the event, which counts as a qualifying session for students studying to become barristers. Kelley was scheduled to be joined by Kieran Aldred, Stonewall’s head of policy, and Robin Allen QC of Cloisters chambers.

But last Thursday, days before the event, the discussion topic was changed to ‘Banning Conversion Practices: The Path to Good Law’, with Aldred replaced by Jayne Ozanne, chair of the Ban Conversion Therapy Coalition, and Naomi Cunningham, a barrister at Outer Temple Chambers and chair of Sex Matters, the campaign group that lobbies for clarity on sex in law and culture.

The lawyers behind the open letter take issue with Cunningham’s inclusion on the panel and yesterday accused the Inn and event organisers of bowing to pressure to include speakers “with a ‘critical’ perspective on trans inclusion”.

The open letter states: “LGBTQ+ organisers must be free to host discussion events made up of panellists who share a commitment to LGBTQ+ equality, including equality for trans people. They should not come under any pressure to include anti-trans speakers in their events.”

They refer to blog posts written by Cunningham, one in which she states she uses the expressions “trans-identifying male” or “trans-identifying man” instead of “trans woman”, and another in which she declines to use a trans woman’s pronouns, “referring to her as a ‘man’ repeatedly and using the pronouns ‘he’ throughout”.

“Someone who uses demeaning and insulting language about trans women should have no place at a Qualifying Session organised for Middle Temple students,” the group writes.

The open letter continues:

“The decision sends a damaging message to trans members and prospective members of the Inn that their inclusion is not something they can take for granted but is ‘up for debate’, even at events that were originally organised to welcome them specifically. This last-minute change has turned an event that was meant to be a celebration of inclusion into a debate between those who support and oppose trans rights.”

The group make a series of demands at the end of the letter, including that the organisers postpone the event, apologise and refund those who no longer wish to attend the event.

Cunningham told us that the event:

“Bodes ill for the profession if aspiring barristers feel entitled to be shielded from even hearing views with which they disagree at an event provided for their education”.

Middle Temple confirmed to Legal Cheek that the event will be going ahead this evening as advertised, stressing the subject of the discussion is “serious and important”.

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Barristers subsequently clashed on social media after the letter was shared by Twitter account, ‘LGBTQ+ Solidarity at the Bar’.

“This is pretty shameful,” tweeted Edward Levey QC of Fountain Court Chambers. “If 100+ members of the bar wish to publicly attack another member of the bar on social media, they should have the backbone and integrity to do so openly, rather than hiding behind the veil of anonymity.”

Simon Myerson QC of St Pauls Chambers added: “What have we become? A public letter aimed at one woman who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Not sent privately. We shouldn’t, surely, behave in such a way.”

Elsewhere, Garden Court Chambers pupil barrister Isaac Ricca-Richardson tweeted: “Love and solidarity to all trans barristers [and] aspiring barristers. I’m sorry that some people think being a barrister means wanting to debate your existence 100% of the time.”

Mary-Rachel McCabe, junior barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, also showed solidarity with the signatories to the letter. She tweeted:

A spokesperson for Middle Temple told Legal Cheek:

“The event will be going ahead. The Inn is fully supportive of the LGBTQ+ Forum. It is their event, designed and delivered by them, the contents of which the Inn would not seek to censor or limit. It has not sought to dictate who should or should not be on the panel for the discussion, entitled ‘Banning Conversion Practices: The Path to Good Law’.

“The subject of the panel discussion is serious and important, and relates to the current government consultation to help the development of banning conversion therapy. The discussion is to be chaired by a very senior practitioner, Robin Allen QC, who was on the Ozanne Foundation’s working party led by Baroness Kennedy, and it was very largely due to the work of Jayne Ozanne (another panel member) that the Queen’s speech contained a proposal for such legislation. The working party included a very broad range of interests.

“As an Inn we are not in favour of ‘de-platforming’ people because they have different views, with which some people disagree. The Inn believes in freedom of speech and expression. It should be a place where discussion of different views can take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The panel has increased since the event was first advertised, to ensure that a wider range of views were represented.”

The spokesperson said that the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum has responded to the petitioners and will refund the tickets of those who no longer wish to attend the event. However, there have been no refund requests as of yet.

Legal Cheek was unable to reach the person or persons behind the ‘LGBTQ+ Solidarity at the Bar’ account for comment.

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