Opinion

Keeping an eye on the bigger picture: why Dinah Rose QC shouldn’t be our target

In the Oxford bubble it is tempting to view every issue through the lens of its effect on the student community. We forget that there are greater concerns than those that affect our immediate surroundings and that the privileges that we have (our education, our resources and our platforms) can be (ought to be?) used for the advancement of more important causes. Students forget that we have a role to play in a global society that is far wider than student groups and college circles.

Frankly, I am jealous of Magdalen students. This may sound insensitive at a time when their college’s leadership is the subject of petitions and ‘condemnation’, but it is the truth. Like Christ Church, Magdalen has a reputation and a history for being one of the more ‘conservative’, ‘traditional’ or ‘old school’ colleges. In the past it has been criticised for being less progressive, not committed enough to equality and diversity. This has inevitably improved over time, in a similar manner to college’s like my own but there remain fundamental problems.

As a Christ Church student, I am a member of a college that lacks clear and decisive leadership. For the past two years there have been scandals, tribunals, employment law litigations and safeguarding concerns [1]. While college censors do their best to step-up to the mark, it is a far cry from the kind of leadership that has been demonstrated by the newly elected President of Magdalen, Dinah Rose QC. As students have themselves noted in articles in this newspaper, Dinah Rose has shown her commitment to the welfare of her college’s students and has helped enact invaluable changes. On a material level she has done more to advance the needs of her students than previous Presidents and has been more in touch with the student community and more visible in her efforts. As a gay student and LGBTQ+ advocate I am jealous of Magdalen for having a president that is so committed to change and improving the wellbeing of her students.

It is also why I am deeply cynical of the stances taken by groups such the university’s own LGBTQ+ Society. Critics have framed recent events as a conflict between Dinah Rose QC’s commitments as a practicing Barrister and her commitments to her college as President. As Dinah and the wider legal community have made clear, her commitments as a Barrister require adhering to professional and ethical standards. This has largely been framed as a debate about the ‘cab-rank’ rule which requires Barristers practicing in England and Wales to accept instructions from clients regardless of the identity of those clients or the causes which they represent. The more significant debate is about the principles that flow from that rule. To associate a lawyer with the views and dispositions of their clients would be an affront to the rule of law. The principle protects clients and Barristers ensuring that every litigant can receive legal representation regardless of their views and of public opinion at the time.

Some students have argued that this is not the issue at stake, that the real issue is whether Dinah Rose can continue to fulfill her role as President of Magdalen (the LGBTQ+ society has dismissed ‘legal twitter’ for missing this point). However, these two issues are not as simplistically separate as we have been led to believe. A head of house at an Oxford college doesn’t fail in the discharge of their duties of care merely because students disagree with their conduct or views. This seems to have been forgotten. Students are taking issue with Dinah Rose’s conduct in the course of discharging professional obligations. To argue that this conduct results in a failure to fulfill equality and diversity requirements is frankly ridiculous. To reach this conclusion requires associating Dinah Rose with the cause of her clients. It requires viewing her in a one-dimensional manner, as the lawyer who represented a homophobic government, at the expense of an accurate portrayal. It requires wilfully blinding oneself to the fact that Dinah Rose has been a proactive President and has helped enact much needed change (as well as a talented Barrister that has also advanced LGBTQ+ rights over the decades of her practice) [2].

This is why I struggle to accept the condemnation of the LGBTQ+ Society and the ACS. They argue that Dinah Rose has hindered her ability to uphold the welfare of her students. This fails to accept her instrumental role in improving the welfare of students at Magdalen. The ACS letter seems to miss other fundamental considerations too. There are undoubtedly moral obligations that flow from British colonial legacies and anti-gay laws. We must educate ourselves about these legacies and take action to support BAME and LGBTQ+ peoples in the Cayman Islands (and elsewhere in the Commonwealth). However, this obligation does not translate into the denial of expert legal representation in hearings before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. To deprive the Cayman Islands’ government representation by expert Barristers would be to infringe their rights to self-determination, access to justice and the rule of law. As students we must ask ourselves, is the hurt feelings and discomfort this has generated more important than such foundational requirements of democracy?  

What disappoints me most is the focus of the debate. It has centered almost entirely on the discomfort of students here in Oxford rather than the LGBTQ+ peoples of the Cayman Islands. The LGBTQ+ Society hasn’t shown in its statements the ways it aims to support or engender change, rather it has looked inwardly. There is an argument that creating outcry here in the UK might help protect rights elsewhere in the commonwealth but that outcry needs to be strategically directed towards the appropriate actors. Sometimes litigation is not the best way to achieve the realisation of moral rights (the European Convention on Human Rights does not even give rise to a legal right to ‘same-sex marriage’ only requiring some form of ‘civil union’). While we think of Human Rights as ‘universal’, ‘inviolable’ and ‘self-evident’, in practice their advancement is naturally restricted by the text of bills, conventions and charters. Often the only approach is to pursue explicit commitments in legislation (as was the case in England with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013). That would require outcry directed towards the Cayman Islands Government, the Governor who has limited legislative powers or the UK Government who can apply diplomatic pressures. To focus on Dinah Rose is to distract from these issues. Further, to demand that Dinah Rose cease practice would be to deny the Hong Kong litigants she will represent later this year (among others) her expert representation –  litigants who aim to advance transgender rights. 

Students are perfectly entitled to feel upset and even to feel discomfort. But they are not entitled to have all other considerations displaced, to draw attention away from the plight of LGBTQ+ individuals elsewhere in the world, to condemn their friendly, engaged and committed head of house and to disregard fundamental principles of justice and the rule of law. As a member of the LGBTQ+ Society and previously an officeholder on its committee, I have been deeply disappointed by their stance. They have missed the fundamental question: how do we best advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the Cayman Islands (and elsewhere around the world). I would urge the society to focus on less insular concerns and look outwards, finding ways in which it can help contribute to the advancement of rights and the education of its members.

  1. As seen in a plethora of articles
  2. See point 16 in Dinah’s statement, “As it happens, I have argued a number of cases that have advanced LGBTQ+ rights, including some pioneering trans rights cases in the 1990s, and a recent case in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, which won for gay couples the right to immigration visas on the same terms as mixed sex couples. I am due to appear in Hong Kong later this year for a claimant who is seeking the right to change the record of their gender on their identity card.”