MASONIC lawyers have spoken publicly for the first time about the forthcoming investigation into their activities by the Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee.
Senior practitioners from all branches of the profession have told The Lawyer their reasons for becoming freemasons and dismissed suspicion that their organisation is a sinister secret society.
Their comments provide an insight into the role freemasonry plays in the lives of many senior judges, barristers and solicitors, who now face calls to declare their membership publicly.
They say that contrary to public belief, there is no close-knit masonic network of lawyers, police officers and criminals exchanging elaborate handshakes and sending secret signals across courtrooms.
Instead, they portray an institution with members who meet infrequently, have no idea who is or is not a fellow mason, and who joined because chance afforded them the opportunity.
They say masonic authorities strictly forbid members to advance their interests through the organisation and pour scorn on the claim that they might show undue favour to a fellow mason.
Although they resent the suspicion, they believe public scrutiny may provide an opportunity for tackling what many see as an image problem fostered by the organisation’s secretive past.
The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently gathering written evidence on the role which freemasonry plays in the lives of public servants such as police officers, judges, solicitors and barristers.
MPs – led by barrister and committee chair Sir Ivan Lawrence – are set to conduct the most high-powered investigation yet into freemasonry.
Many submissions have already been made and next year the committee clerk will write to institutions such as the Law Society and the Bar Council, inviting them to give evidence.
Legal practice is one of the key areas of concern. Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, identified the profession when he tried unsuccessfully to move a Bill which would have forced public servants to declare membership.
He told the Commons during the debate three years ago that only the police force compared with the legal profession for its high concentration of freemasons.
Although there is no breakdown of membership figures, there is an undeniable link between freemasonry and “old” establishment professions such as the law.
Many senior lawyers are freemasons and there are a number of lodges based on legal practice. These include the elite Chancery Bar and Gray’s Inn lodges, open only to judges and barristers, or more open provincial lodges such as the South Wales Jurists for lawyers around Cardiff and Swansea.
Mullin believes membership of “secret societies” are incompatible with the democratic dispensation of a public servant’s duty, if only because they undermine public confidence in institutions.
He stresses, however, that it is not freemasonry he objects to. “Take away the secrecy and you take away the problem,” he said.
Two writers, Martin Short and the late Stephen Knight, related stories of masonic misdemeanour in their respective books, Inside the Brotherhood and The Brotherhood.
Their examples, though, are often confined to masonry within small localities, and the accusations of bias and victimisation are often admitted to be claims rather than fact.
However, Short said any secret conspiracy was bound to be difficult to verify. “The very nature of the problem is how difficult it is to ascertain which people in a particular case are masons.”
One barrister said he believed his career had been held back because he refused to join a lodge in his home city of Cardiff more than two decades ago.
His written evidence to the select committee claims that masonic solicitors deliberately delayed payment for work. “They deliberately try to force you out,” he said.
The committee has also received a submission from the Association of Women Barristers, expressing concerns that freemasonry can be used as a networking for men.
AWB chair Barbara Hewson said: “To the extent that it automatically excludes women, it is something we would be concerned about. People in positions of power like judges ought to be prepared to say whether they are a member of a secret society.”
Complaints about the influence of freemasonry have been made to the Solicitors’ Complaints Bureau, but such allegations would only be investigated if they related to professional misconduct, and none has merited disciplinary action.
Martin Mears, president of the Law Society and a non-mason, believes their influence is exaggerated and does not see the need for a wide-ranging public inquiry.
“If there were any evidence that a judge looked at a defendant and treated him leniently because he was recognised as a fellow mason, then that would give cause for concern, but I don’t think there is any evidence.”
Lord Justice Millett, a mason for 27 years and a member of the Chancery Bar and Harrow School Lodges, said: “Investigating masonry as a whole is like investigating golf clubs.
“Nobody thinks there is anything sinister about a judge becoming a member of a golf club, but if he is a member he probably meets his fellow members on dining terms or playing terms far more frequently than a mason meets his fellow mason.”
Sir John Welch, a senior mason, and client partner at law firm Wedlake Bell for Grand Lodge, said: “If it’s just a question of knocking an organisation that may be perceived to be part of the establishment, then I would object.
“If there is a valid reason for it, then the more investigations the better because hopefully the masons will come out of it unscathed.”