Comment: Gay judge reflects on thirty years as an out lawyer

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Earlier this month, Queen Mary, University of London, launched a specialist legal advice centre for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people.

The Pink Law Legal Advice Centre, the first of its kind in higher education, has been established in partnership with three top City law firms and will offer free and impartial legal advice on issue such as employment discrimination, civil partnerships and cohabitation.

The guest of honour at the launch event was Sir Adrian Fulford.

In his address, he spoke about his experiences as an openly gay man in the legal profession and reflected that in the past decade: “it’s as if the warp-drive has suddenly been attached to LGBT rights.”

Mr Justice Fulford’s appointment as a High Court judge in 2002 was the first time that an openly homosexual QC had been appointed to the court.

Mr Justice Fulford, known outside court as Sir Adrian, was subsequently elected at the United Nations in 2003 to serve as a judge on the International Criminal Court.

Here are his remarks at the launch of Pink Law Legal Advice Centre:

One of the advantages, and I assure you there aren’t many of them, of what sometimes feels like extreme old age, is that you gain a perspective on events that you simply didn’t have before.

Particularly you get a historical focus through which a bright light shines on events taking place today.

For me the past has been crucial in appreciating how vitally important this new venture within the Queen Mary legal advice centre is.

When I came of age in the law in the mid 1970’s, nothing remotely resembling the Pink Law project existed.

Although even then was a time of seismic and exciting change as regards to the provision of free legal advice.

I worked for some years myself as a caseworker at a centre in Earls Court, now sadly long gone. And there were other organisations which at the time seemed unbelievably revolutionary.

There was the Advisory Service for Squatters which, I was amazed to find courtesy of Google today, still exists. Release, which continues to give advice and assistance to those with drug problems and numerous other similar organisations.

But the area of sexuality even in those times of radical change and progress, was a complete desert. A few enterprising lawyers set up a gay legal advice service on a voluntary basis providing evening telephone advice but it was wholly dependent of volunteers and I can find no trace of its existence now.

The legal profession has always been conservative, although less so now than the days gone by. And back then for many who did not conform to the heterosexual standard, particularly if you were not from a privileged background, there was simply nowhere to go for advice and help.

It’s perhaps in 2008 world in which we live in Western Europe to get across how intimidating and hostile it could be thirty years ago.

There were no firms who specialised in this area or made it known that they specialised in this area. And as a result it was extremely difficult to find a decent hearing from your solicitor if you were to see him or her or any kind of proper service.

And the Bar was as bad if not worse. In my early days, I defended countless men on gross indecency and importuning charges. And I can vividly recall the raw hostility that came flooding, first in the direction of my clients and pretty quickly, my way when some of the older pin-stripped prosecutors and dinosaur judges realised not only was the defendant gay but horror of horrors also was his barrister.

To be out as a practitioner in the year 1978, which is the year I was called, was something of a rollercoaster of a ride. Some of my colleagues were fantastic, others were simply gross in their rudeness and prejudices.

People lost jobs, families were destroyed, lives were broken by the large number of prosecutions of men for such absurdities as allegedly chatting up other men in places such as Old Brompton Rd, thereby ‘persistently importuning for an immoral purpose.’

It sounds quite ludicrous to think of those court cases now. Policemen in supposedly provocative tight t-shirts and jeans, acting effectively as agent-provocateurs along that stretch of road between the Colherne pub and the Brompton cemetery in Earls Court.

And that was something that was repeated in every town and city, the length and breadth of the country. What a waste of time and money. What warped morality and how unbelievably destructive it was.

The workplace could be an equal nightmare for the LGBT community.

Men and women losing their jobs and facing real discrimination because of their private life. And as for adopting children, you were practically branded a paedophile for even suggesting the idea. And few lawyers were prepared to assist in any attempt to redress those sorts of discriminatory practice.

And inheritance arrangements, what actually happened in respect to the true legal position, when one partner died in a relationship, could be dire.

So many men and women suddenly found themselves homeless and without anything, when the relatives of the person who had been ostracised by his or her family for years suddenly descended out of thin air, having not been seen for years, on the day they departed to take every last stick of furniture. No ‘civil partnerships’ back then and the law did not smile sympathetically on claims that were akin to spouses or wives.

Now why am I visiting the past? It’s not just the autumnal reminiscences of an aging judge. But rather, I seek to highlight that we have suddenly travelled a long way in a very short period of time. To use the language of ‘Star-Trek’, it’s as if the warp-drive has suddenly been attached to LGBT rights.

In truth, I cannot conceive that we will in the predictable future return to the ghastliness of thirty-plus years ago.

But that said, when you scratch the surface, particularly in times of difficulty when people feel threatened, prejudice, misunderstanding, fear and conservatism with a small ‘c’ can be found on occasion lurking surprisingly close to the surface.

While we have every reason to be confident about the future, we should also strive to ensure that we do not become blasé about the present. We should not take these fundamental advances for granted.

And the more deeply rooted the projects like this become, providing an invaluable service and benefit to both the legal advisers and to clients alike, the more certain we can be that Pink Law will not be an anomaly but rather the shape of things to come.

From the perspective of this somewhat seasoned campaigner, my thoughts are that the monthly Pink Law advice sessions that are a deeply welcome development and should be nurtured and encouraged.

Not just for those that participate in them, the advisers and the advised, but also for what they represent of the changed circumstances and the far healthier environment in which we now live.

Other faculties should follow this innovative and imaginative lead and other leaders in the legal establishment should emulate the steps taken by Reed Smith, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Mischon de Reya, who have shown real generosity and imagination.

Finally a word about Queen Mary’s. The academics and other staff who have enabled this to happen are too often taken for granted or are forgotten all together. In my view, you are to be congratulated heartily for ensuring that this has come to pass. I wish you all the very best of luck.