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Lord Chancellor takes aim at lawyers over diversity failures

The justice secretary’s ‘great meritocracy’ speech fails to inspire lawyers or political hacks

5 October 2016

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Elizabeth Truss has used her Conservative party conference speech to call for more to be done to boost diversity in the legal profession and judiciary.

The first woman Lord Chancellor in 800 years used her conference address to the party faithful to promise reforms to prisons, jobs for armed forces personnel, a new-look human rights regime, and a modern justice system. However, she added that the latter ‘is not just reflected in its practices and processes but in its people’.

‘Currently only one in seven of QCs and one in three of partners in law firms are women,’ she said. ‘Fewer than one in ten judges come from ethnic minorities. Only a quarter went to state school. This is modern global Britain – we can do better than this.’

The justice secretary called for an ‘open’ legal system that drew on ‘all available talent in our society’. ‘If we are to transform this great nation into a “great meritocracy” the legal profession and our judiciary should be leading the field,’ she continued, before taking aim at the makeup of the UK’s highest court.

‘The Supreme Court is a vital part of our constitution and I cherish its independence. But can it be right that out of 12 judges in the Supreme Court only one is a woman and not a single one is from an ethnic minority? This would be difficult to justify in any boardroom or around the Cabinet table.’

Responding to the speech, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, chairman of the Bar, said the Lord Chancellor was right to put diversity high up on her agenda.

‘We all want to see greater career progression for women and BAME lawyers and judges,’ she said. ‘The Bar and the judiciary need to reflect society at large. The Bar is making great efforts to promote diversity and retain talent. Transformation will take time but we must respond to legitimate concern.’

The Bar has launched a number of initiatives to increase diversity within its ranks, including mentoring schemes to support women and ethnic minority barristers seeking to become QCs and judges. In July, the Bar also launched a maternity scheme open to barristers with children.

However, more work is needed following research that showed sexual harassment and discrimination was still rife at the Bar. Meanwhile, in the solicitor profession, the top 10 law firms were recently found to be lagging behind their mid-sized peers in numbers of women partners.

Though Truss’ speech on prison reform and diversity will be welcomed by many, other onlookers were less than inspired, or indeed highly critical of her performance.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said it was ‘astounding’ that the Lord Chancellor did not mention legal aid, advice deserts, access to justice, or the effect of employment tribunal fees in her speech. ‘I believe – as did [the] Attlee government – that legal aid is the fourth pillar of our welfare state. But no mention of it by Liz Truss,’ he said on Twitter.

Truss also drew online criticism from lawyers for an interview with the Telegraph in which she attacked ‘ambulance chasers’ looking to profit from false allegations against British troops – a feature of this year’s Tory party conference – and pledged that only the ‘vulnerable’ would be given legal aid.

Writing in the same paper, parliamentary sketchwriter Michael Deacon, who after three days at the conference now knows ‘what death feels like’, observed: ‘It’s like watching children in a school play. Either they mumble self-consciously into their chin (Karen Bradley, the Culture Secretary) or loudly over-enunciate (Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who MAKES EV RY SIN GLE SYLL A BLE SOUND LIKE AN IN DIV ID U AL WORD).’

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts wrote that the justice secretary’s speech was ‘grippingly terrible’. ‘How could so jellyish and unformed a political personality have been made Lord Chancellor?’ he added. ‘I have known ping-pong bats less wooden, CBeebies presenters more statesmanlike.’

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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