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Lammy renews call for judicial diversity quotas

28 March 2019

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Labour MP David Lammy has told the Justice Committee that the government must introduce diversity quotas to the judicial appointments process.

His comments came during an evidence session on 25 March, in which he discussed progress on the implementation of his review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system.

Lammy said, despite refraining from recommending an exact diversity quota in his review 18 months ago, he would now recommend the government implement one “without a shadow of a doubt”.

Without it, he said progress would be very slow, adding: “Progress since the last review has been snail like”.

Calling for a “step change” in the diversity of the judiciary at the time, Lammy had urged the government to set a national target to achieve fair representation by 2025, suggesting the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) be given responsibility for delivering it.

However, the JAC came under fire at various points in Lammy’s evidence this week. Crucially he said he had “detected a degree of complacency in the system”, while discussing the dearth of BAME judges with the JAC.

The MP for the London borough of Tottenham said he was so concerned by the lack of urgency he sensed in the JAC that he had told them “had we stuck with the tap on the shoulder we would have more diversity today”.

He said his research of the judicial appointments process had revealed that BAME applicants were shed at every stage, implying that the exclusion of diverse applicants – including those from white working-class backgrounds - was built into the process.

“The JAC and the judges will say that we have to appoint on merit”, he said. “I wish they would not keep repeating that. None of us think that we should not be appointing on merit, but I think we push back quite hard that we don’t believe that merit is not found among women and ethnic minorities”.

Sharing Lammy’s dissatisfaction with the situation, committee member and Labour MP David Hanson shared Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett’s evidence to the committee last year, in which he said: “There is nothing so far that anybody has found, and there is certainly nothing I can think of, that is an obvious explanation for the lack of judicial diversity”.

Lammy responded: “If you can’t say what’s happening it is likely that what is happening is discriminatory practice or conscious or unconscious bias. That is what is happening. And that is what they have been unable to rule out. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck!”.

Hanson went on to ask about the magistrates, where diversity has also been found to be woefully lacking, and one telling exchange seemed to crystallise precisely why greater diversity is needed, and why it is so difficult to achieve.

Pointing to the burgeoning problem with trust between BAME communities and the justice system and the success of local court programmes in other countries, Lammy asked why magistrates courts could not consider relocating once a month, to sit in a local estate or community centre.

Committee chair and conservative MP Robert Neill said that there would be concerns over the safety of the judges in that situation, deftly highlighting the disconnect between those that sit in court as judge and those that attend in search of justice.

Surely, if there was greater diversity in the magistracy both the actual and perceived risk would be greatly reduced?

However, that was not the line that Lammy took. Instead he argued that if MPs could run their surgeries from council estates, there was no reason why magistrates could not also sit there. 

With either defence of the idea in mind, it was clear by the end of the session that no matter how great the will of some to improve judicial diversity, the cultural resistance to it is deeply engrained. Quotas are unlikely to be enough. 

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Ethics