CW: Homophobia

This week it has emerged that Dinah Rose QC, the President of Magdalen College, Oxford represented the Cayman Islands’ Government in a court case attempting to block the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the British overseas territory.

This case took place in March 2019, with Rose taking office as Magdalen’s first female President at the start of the current academic year. In the case, in which the Cayman Islands’ Government was successful, it was argued that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry. However, the territory was forced into offering civil partnerships with legal equivalency to marriage by the Court of Appeal.

It has now emerged that Rose is set to litigate on behalf of the anti-LGBTQ+ Caymanian Government once again on the same issue, as the Government looks to appeal the decision in front of the Privy Council.

Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society has tonight released a statement condemning the situation and, in particular, Rose’s decision to send an email to students attempting to justify her actions. Specifically, the LGBTQ+ Society highlighted how Rose attempted to use the “English Bar’s cab rank rule” to justify providing representation to the Caymanian Government in this case. The Society argued that this was not an “absolute” obligation and that, given how her taking on the case might affect students at her College, she should have turned it down.

The LGBTQ+ Society statement added that they had been “flooded” with students who were deeply concerned by the story, with one so upset that it had made them feel like “re-entering the closet”. This “clear evidence that this discomfort and hurt has indeed been caused” raises difficult questions, in the Society’s view. Drawing a distinction between the 2019 Court of Appeal case and the “question at hand”, the Society “do not understand” how a President of a College can put their professional commitments ahead of their obligations to the college community they represent.

The full statement reads:

Since the story on Dinah Rose came out, we have been flooded with concerns and signs of discomfort from the LGBTQ+ student body who were appalled by Dinah Rose’s involvement in the case. One Magdalen student even posted anonymously that they felt this incident had distressed them to the extent that they felt like ‘re-entering the closet’. Others felt let down by their non-LGBTQ+ friends who made the debate exclusively about the cab rank rule and characterised Dinah Rose as the victim in this matter, a strategy so often advanced by those furthering anti-LGBTQ+ action.

Specifically, students at Magdalen felt ‘horrified’ by the tone of an email Dinah Rose sent to the student body this morning, in which she outlined a number of arguments for her involvement in the case. She crucially argued that the cab rank rule applies to the Privy Council brief, and that she was obliged to accept it.

The debate is not about the English Bar’s cab rank rule, nor is Dinah Rose the victim. We have good reason to question her suggestion that the English cab rank rule applies in the absolute manner she outlines. The minute Dinah Rose accepted the position of President, the duties of her new role became pre-eminent. Her new job and its high profile and importance meant that she would have been able to extricate herself from this and other cases. After all, lawyers who become judges extricate themselves regularly from their cases.

Due to the sensitivities of this case for her students and staff and the reputational risk for Magdalen and Oxford, she should have prioritised her withdrawal from the case commencing last Spring. That was a year ago. She has had ample time to step away. If need be, she should have referred herself to the Bar Council. If she really believed in Magdalen’s equality policy and if she meant what she said about accessibility and inclusion, she would have self-referred if necessary.

Many practitioner heads of Colleges have with sound principle been able to navigate practice and College / University duties by ensuring that professional work does not put them at risk of conflict with the College. The fact is that she did not, and instead sidetracked the feelings and interests of LGBTQ+ students. Had she taken her Presidency of Magdalen seriously, she would have properly made use of the opportunity to lay down briefs which would make students feel vulnerable, impact their wellbeing, and damage her College’s reputation. The student body’s response is clear evidence that this discomfort and hurt has indeed been caused. This, and the fact that she is earning fees from advancing an argument that reinforces discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, makes her contention that there is no conflict between her role as President and as a barrister derisory.

We do not understand how a College President can proceed on a case which is causing harm and distress to a part of the very student body she is supposed to be representing and protecting. The question of her involvement in the 2019 Court of Appeal case is fundamentally different to the question at hand, which is not whether she as a barrister should take such cases, but whether she can properly fulfil her duties as President when continuing to do so. To say that nothing could or should have been done is a distraction, and we continue to press for change.

It is expected that Magdalen College JCR will soon be commenting on the situation.

Rose defended her actions in an email to students this week, citing the English Bar’s “cab rank” rule which, in principle, means that barristers are duty-bound to take any case they are qualified to, so that all parties have access to legal representation.

Dinah Rose QC’s office has been contacted for comment.

Image Credits: Wikimedia

Mitchell Marshall

Mitch (he/ him) is Editor-in-Chief for Trinity term 2021 as well as a long-suffering Sunderland fan, keen runner and general sports obsessive. His other interests include indie music, arthouse cinema,...