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‘Diversity deficit’ among senior judges ‘a serious constitutional issue’

Increasing judicial diversity is vital to a fairer justice system, says new report

26 April 2017

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The ‘diversity deficit’ among senior judges in England and Wales is ‘a serious constitutional issue’ and must be addressed to maintain the judiciary’s independence and its global reputation for excellence, senior lawyers have warned.

A report by law reform group JUSTICE said important steps had been taken to improve diversity in the judiciary in recent years, but progress had been too slow and interventions insufficient.

‘Proactive’ change is needed, the group said, to open up routes to the senior bench; ‘targets with teeth’ are among several proposals designed to achieve this.

The new study highlighted the lack of women, BAME people, and those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds in the senior judiciary and comes at a time when the Supreme Court is considering applications for at least two new justices.

In calling for active steps to recruit from a wider talent pool, the study outlined measures to encourage underrepresented groups to embark upon a judicial career and give them a fair chance of appointment.

It recommends that ambitious ‘targets with teeth’ for every court lacking gender or ethnic diversity should be set by policy-makers and selectors. The ‘teeth’ would be monitoring, transparency, and reporting obligations on a new Senior Selections Committee and the current Judicial Appointments Commission, which should set targets for diversity for each level of the judiciary, reporting on its progress to a parliamentary committee.

If there is persistent failure to meet targets over the next decade, strong consideration should be given to introducing quotas, the report says.

Also suggested is the introduction of ‘appointable pools’ so that the quality of individual prospective judges can be considered in conjunction with the needs of a particular court. Elsewhere, the creation of judicial career paths would allow junior lawyers to take up an entry-level position in the tribunal system or on the district bench with a view to achieving promotion to the senior judiciary.

Nathalie Lieven QC, chair of the working party which compiled the study, said: ‘We have been impressed by the high level of recognition of and commitment to a more diverse judiciary among key decision-makers. However, simply leaving change to organic processes is taking far too long and, on current projections, will never deliver sufficient diversity to the bench.

We need systemic, structural changes to both appointments and human resources management. Our report calls for reformed selection processes, and a proactive approach to recruitment and promotion.’

Andrea Coomber, director of JUSTICE, said: ‘We realise that some of the measures recommended in this report will be unpopular with some, but if the long-standing issue of lack of diversity is to be genuinely addressed then those at the most senior levels must accept that difficult and perhaps unpopular decisions will have to be taken to deliver a more diverse judiciary.

‘Now is the perfect time for change. We are faced with an unprecedented opportunity as the majority of the Supreme Court – all nine judges from England and Wales – will be replaced over the next three years, resulting in vacancies cascading down the judiciary. With such a high number of appointments opening up, there is a real chance to change swiftly the demographic composition of our senior judiciary.’

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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