Downton Abbey – questioning prejudice

by on for The Lawyer 2B

Was it just me, or was the overarching theme of this week’s episode ‘prejudice’?

Lord Grantham seems to epitomise the definition of “one prone towards making baseless and often negative judgements formed beforehand without knowledge or examination of the facts”. But he is not alone – look at Mr Carson’s harsh declarations on Ethel, or Thomas’s attitude towards Jimmy (and vice versa come to think of it). All is not well at Downton.

In today’s (arguably) more enlightened times, we have a raft of legislation to protect us against harassment, whether in the work place or otherwise. But I do find myself pondering whether this really leaves us better off. One lawyer friend of mine with a photographic memory (how enviable that must have been at exam time…) still struggles to come up with ten positive examples of the use of the Human Rights Act, whereas even I can immediately name ten bad ones. Equally, however abhorrent the behaviour, I remain to be convinced that the chap wearing the wholly distasteful t-shirt hours after PCs Bone and Hughes were shot really deserved to go to prison. How does one decide which line has to be crossed before distasteful behaviour becomes actionable or even criminal?

I suspect Jimmy, Ethel and even Tom may argue differently: just because legislation is abused or misinterpreted does not mean it is fundamentally wrong. Jimmy and Ethel may take significant comfort from the existence of a wide range of work related Acts designed to give them equality, including the Sex Discrimination Act, Employment Rights Act and Equality Act. It also helps to know that their employer can be held liable for their predicaments. Lord Grantham’s prejudice against Tom’s religious standing is not carried on in a work context, but it may well be that he rants constitute ‘threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour’ under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

But wouldn’t it be a depressing world indeed if we had to rely on the law to enforce standards of behaviour in lieu of our own moral code. I defy any lawyer (or person) to claim they are not to some degree ‘prejudiced’: we all have clients, or indeed colleagues, that prompt a groan when we see their names appear on ‘caller screening’ and there are some jobs that threaten to stay at the bottom of our to do pile so long they sprout roots. The point is that what makes a good lawyer (or indeed a good person, if that’s not a contradiction in terms) is to set aside these prejudices and do the best we can.

Lord Grantham could not have provided a better example of what absolutely not to do as a lawyer, and that is to entrench. Storming into a room and demanding everyone leave, only to leave alone, makes him look foolish. And believe me, you will feel equally foolish when you slam down the phone on your oppo with the words “and that is our final position” only to realise you’ve blown the whole deal and have to call back with a compromise two days later. In my defence, it was a long time ago and yes, I did learn from my mistakes.

Our jobs above all are to find a compromise. The road between ‘where a client is’ and ‘where a client wants to be’ is rarely a straight one, and it often turns out that the end destination is several miles away from where you were told it was. The wisest words given to me as a trainee were: question everything, assume nothing and never panic. To that I would only add: and never pass judgment without having full knowledge of the facts.