I have not been to a Society of Legal Scholars conference for some time. I was looking forward to it. I was particularly excited to be able to go to all of the conference rather than just the half in which my paper was scheduled. I am doing 2 papers in the Legal Education section – more on those another time.
Travel to London was uneventful. I like uneventful. I got a fair bit of work done on the train in spite of the supposed quiet coach being the noisiest coach I have been in for a long time. Is it the thing where you’re told you’re not allowed to do something and therefore immediately want to do it? I got the tube out to Mile End and found the campus and even the right building very quickly. I also managed to get a ticket for the dinner at the end of day 1. I hadn’t booked because I wasn’t going to go but then the opportunity for a catch up with Richard C arose so I really wanted to go.
I had arrived in time for lunch – a rather ordinary pasta with a veggie sauce (I think there was a chicken one too) and then I headed to the first session. The first paper was great. I expected it to be. It was a paper by Marc Mason (Westminster) and Steven Vaughan (UCL) reporting on their research with LGBT+ barristers in England and Wales. Bonus points if you ‘get’ the title ‘Going to the Gay Bar, Gay Bar, Gay Bar…’ (if you do, your taste in music is as horrendous as mine!). The paper was fascinating and sort of heartbreaking and a little puzzling…. For a start the survey Marc and Steven did shows quite clearly that the Bar Standards Board statistics on sexuality at the Bar are hugely underestimating the number of LGBT+ barristers across the levels. That in itself means that there is something going on there because some are clearly happy to take part in surveys and interviews for research purposes but are not happy to declare their sexuality as part of the BSB statistics reporting. I wonder why that is. The paper’s sections on homophobia and on the performance of being out were fascinating. The data shows that homophobia is quite common but also that barristers play it down as nothing serious and no big deal. I’m really interested in this lack of advocating for themselves. Where does this come from. Is this a professional thing? Do they advocate for each other? This is fascinating and I’m not sure how we’d get to the bottom of this fully. I’ll ponder this.
I loved the notion that came up in one of the quotes about challenging or disrupting the ‘normal rule of engagements’. So men (mostly) finding it difficult to work out what exactly is going on when faced with a powerful lesbian QC, knowing something is slightly ‘off’ and not being able to work out what the rules of engagement now are. I like that. The section on performance of being out (or not) was depressing because there was lots of evidence of concealing sexuality and lying and because clearly there is a huge amount of the ‘bleached professional’ going on. Where barristers are ‘out’ they are often out in relation to their partners only – so they build their professional gay identity around having a same sex partner rather than on being gay – playing the ‘good gay’ game and performing heteronormativity albeit within a same sex relationship.
The second paper was by Ben Waters (Canterbury Christ Church) on ADR and Civil Justice. I also enjoyed this paper although it’s not really my thing and I was still reflecting on the previous one so drifted in and out.
Anyway it was a fabulous start to the conference. Next I was going to hear more legal education/legal profession stuff and listen to Nigel Duncan (City) on teaching legal ethics but over coffee I realised that I was really flagging. I decided to check into the accommodation and have a little power nap so that’s what I did. Then I headed back to the publisher exhibition area and spent a lovely half hour looking at books (sooooooooo many books, so little time to read….) and then people started filtering in from the sessions for the drinks reception. At the reception I met up with Richard C and we spent the evening talking about well being and anxiety in the legal academy and it was lovely. I left dinner when Richard did and then I went to bed early and fell asleep almost immediately. A good day and a sensible one! I have a blog post started over a year ago on conference self care and I think maybe now is a good time to look at that draft and finish it. I’ll see if I get to it today.
I’ve been meaning to do this shameless self promotion post since our book was published but somehow never got round to it. But now we are waving the summer off and are hitting the new academic year hard it seems sort of ok to do this. I’m not really keen on the ‘yay look at me’ stuff so this post is really about the book and the process of writing it. If you happen to want to persuade your library to buy a copy or two that would of course be awesome too! You can find it on the Publisher’s website here.
So the book. Well it’s basically an examination of the Court of Justice of the European Union and its work on a couple of substantive law areas and it is written from a feminist perspective. In writing the book we were interested in understanding the role gender plays in the CJEU’s work. The first half sets out our approach and the background – composition of the Court, how it works etc and the second half looks at gender equality case law, equality case law more generally and citizenship case law. If you do read it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
I am really proud of this book – not necessarily because of the content and the writing, I can already see plenty of ways it could all be improved – but because it was such a genuine collaboration and joint effort which proved that collegiality is alive and well and because we were able to work with one of our undergraduate students and use sections of her dissertation as part of our research. It was such a privilege to work with Dr Sanna Elfving who I had appointed and who is an absolute star and with Sophie Mayat, a fabulous former student particularly because I missed supervising most of her dissertation while off sick with depression and anxiety just before I left Bradford. It was amazing to see the hard work she put in and the genuinely high quality research, thinking and writing that she produced.
I learned a lot during the writing of that book. First, it always takes longer than you think it will, a lot longer. Second, I need to work with people who have much more patience than I have a right to ask for. I will at some point in the process fuck up and/or fall off the wagon and I need to trust my co-authors to stick with me, call me out, catch my mistakes and point me back in the right direction. That means they need to have incredible patience and they need to be able to cope with me being a bit of a control freak (ok a lot). Sanna deserves a medal. Third, working with someone who works very differently from me is great. The writing process was really interesting. It seems I map out, Sanna inserted tons of information, I edited, Sanna sorted the references. I had the big picture in my head, she took care of the detail. We are good at different things and that means we can focus on the things we like and are good at but all of it still gets done.
I think the key thing I learned was that a book needs to be really strictly mapped out. We had way too much material and trying to work out how to do it all justice caused some of our issues about structure and the overall argument. Once we decided we would just have to leave some of it out, it actually came together well. We have a couple of ideas for some of the stuff that didn’t make it into the book and definitely have more to say on the subject.
Writing a book is a long slog and I thought that it might be like a PhD or running a marathon – you have to forget the pain before you can even begin to think about doing anything like it again – but actually I’d like to write another one, it was overall a really enjoyable experience. Sure, it had its moments but it was also fun. I have a couple of ideas but lots of research work to do before I can begin to really put pen to paper (probably actual pen to actual paper) but watch this space.
Today I gave a short presentation on weight discrimination in EU Law at the 6th Weight Stigma Conference held at Leeds Beckett University. Some times talking to mostly non-lawyers about law is fabulous, sometimes it’s not and today I found the room really hard to read. It was part of a long session following lunch so maybe people were experiencing their afternoon slump (I was) or maybe it had something to do with the presentation before mine. It was on UK (let’s ignore the fact that there’s no such thing as UK law really) anti-discrimination law based on weight. It was how I would imagine I would have been taught employment law if I had chosen to study it. It was so doctrinal/black letter in its approach that even I was bored and I get excited about anti-discrimination law! It was all definitions and them (the fat people who might want to claim) and us (the presumably not fat lawyers). It was mildly patronising – fat people should not fear discrimination and the law does protect in some circumstances. I’m not sure many who are fat would agree with that. But anyway, the atmosphere in the room was odd when I went up to give my presentation.
I introduced myself as a feminist EU Lawyer and sometimes more, sometimes less overweight marathon runner. There were some laughs. Phew. More laughs when I mentioned my drawer full of race t-shirts which don’t fit and which might just cover half a boob. Then down to the serious stuff – law is not going to solve that sort of discrimination. So very briefly my argument was:
There is no prohibition on weight discrimination in EU Law. Directive 2000/78 covers discrimination on a number of protected characteristics in the employment context. Disability is one of those protected characteristics. To gain protection (or more accurately redress) from the law, weight discrimination has to be brought within definitions of disability discrimination. English Law is firmly rooted in the medical model of disability – the problem is the impairment – whereas EU law offers some glimpse of hope because it includes the social model as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability – the problem is social barriers. That glimmer of hope may have been extinguished with the CJEU’s decision in Kaltoft though which, in an obesity case, reaffirms the social model and then reverts back to a medical model in the key part of the decision. So in short – law is complex and tricky in this area.
I also think theoretically linking weight discrimination with disability discrimination is problematic. Of course some people with very high or very low weight can bring themselves within the definition of disability but many cannot. So lets think about my experience (in the absence of detailed research on this as yet, I am drawing on what I know from my experience!). Even if law applied (it doesn’t) it wouldn’t solve my problem of short half marathon and marathon cut off times and utterly ridiculous race shirt sizing (I have an XXL t-shirt which I literally cannot get over my shoulders). So the cut off time would indirectly discriminate against heavier runners – we are more likely to be slow, the lack of t-shirts that fit more than one boob is direct discrimination but there is no protected characteristic – I’m nowhere near the definition of disability in this context – not even on a fairly expansive definition of the social model. Maybe using the example of running is flippant, I’m not sure. I just know that exercise and sport are the things that have caused me personally the most anxiety in relation to my own weight. It’s where I know I experience discrimination and bias all the time.
So I don’t think the legal framework as it stands is helpful. I am also not sure that adding weight as a protective characteristic is all that helpful. Let’s start with the symbolic power of law – let’s not underestimate that. It is certainly important because it’s a clear statement that certain types of behaviours and actions are wrong. That can be really important for individuals. Law can be useful to help educate and raise awareness. Yes, I agree with all of that BUT let’s be really careful here. Law always always always has unintended consequences and often they can be incredibly harmful – we need to think about whether adding weight as a characteristic would cause a backlash, would it drive discrimination ‘underground’, make it less blatant and obvious and thus harder to tackle in other ways?
How would we define weight discrimination? How do we define weight? Can discrimination here be based on too low, too high or too average? How would this work in practice? Where would we draw the lines? What measure would we use – surely not BMI? Does it depend on context? I don’t know where to start with this! Every possible way I can think of can potentially have totally absurd consequences.
Law also has some inherent problems. It relies on discrimination happening. Law cannot prevent discrimination and we know from other protected grounds that the possibility of being taken to court is not, in practice, deterring people from discriminating at any significant rate. Law reduces us all to single characteristics. We can be fat, thin, white, black, female, male, gay, straight…. we cannot be a combination of those in law. It can’t actually cope with people. Law does not understand intersectionality and weight discrimination rarely, if ever, exists in isolation. And law cannot tackle stigma. Equal marriage hasn’t stopped homophobia – anti weight discrimination law won’t stop weight stigma or bias – we need other solutions.
There are practical problems with law too – bringing a case is horrendous. I could not, in good conscience, advise anyone to take a discrimination claim to court. It’s financially and emotionally draining – as in completely – until you have nothing left. It’s a significant undertaking and our legal system favours those with money and social capital, if you don’t have both along with an unlimited reserve of resilience, just don’t do it! Oh and of course, don’t even think about trying if you do not have absolute concrete proof. And that is going to be harder and harder to get. If weight becomes a protected characteristics then discrimination may become more subtle, less obvious, more like the discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation some of us have clearly experienced but would never be able to prove. We’d just know, everyone would just know but the law demands proof – even of the blatantly obvious.
So I think what I am saying is that law is part of the theoretical and symbolic answer but not really part of the practical solution.
In my presentation I used the language used in much of the literature I read – non-ideal weight. This caused a noticeable reaction in the presentation before mine where it was also used. I actually meant to start with explaining why/how I was using it but I got caught up in my race t-shirt story and forgot. I get how the language is problematic and I meant to say that legal literature appears to use it as a shorthand way to cover very low and very high weight and that it does not denote a value judgment. So just to be absolutely clear – I was using it as a sort of legal category or shorthand with no assigning of value intended at all. I guess though that the legal literature might want to re-think that language use and I will be for my written paper.
Anyway, watch this space – full paper coming in due course….