Former senior judge urges caution over quotas

Topics: Equality and diversity

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A former High Court judge has urged caution on introducing quotas to tackle the lack of gender diversity in the legal profession.

Dame Linda Dobbs DBE (pictured), the UK’s first non-white High Court judge, told an Association of Women Solicitors event last week that she did not believe in quotas.

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‘Not at the moment’, she added. ‘I do not think enough has been done yet without going as far as quotas.

‘Quotas have potential problems but there may come a time when we say “we have got no alternative”… The figures have not changed that much.’

Dobbs said there was around a 50/50 gender split among new entrants to the professions. ‘Then about five to seven years later [there is a] huge attrition rate, and then it gets greater as you go on. What’s to be done about it?’

Noting that some firms had diversity targets, she told the association: ‘If your firm does not have them, you should be pushing for them. It means it’s on the agenda all the time. Someone has got responsibility to achieve those targets, so it’s a boardroom issue.’

Dobbs said leadership at the top was ‘absolutely key’, whether it was parliament, the lord chief justice or a firm’s senior partner.

She said the present lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, was ‘very keen’ on diversity in the judiciary. ‘Together with Lady Justice Hallett they’re really trying hard.’

Describing quotas as an ‘emotive’ issue, Dobbs said: ‘If you are going to go down that route, you have got to have a good system of support to make sure those people who carry out what it is you want them to carry out.’

Gender diversity was back on the government’s agenda this week. Yesterday HM Treasury unveiled a new charter to improve gender diversity in senior positions within the financial services sector.

Meanwhile Sir Philip Hampton, chair of GlaxoSmithKline and former chair of RBS and Sainsbury’s, is leading an ‘independent review’ to increase the number of women at executive level of FTSE 350 companies. 

The review continues on from the work of the Davies review, which was originally set up to increase the number of women on boards. The latter, led by Lord Davies of Abersoch, saw female representation on the FTSE 100 more than double to 26% in less than five years. 

Readers' comments (4)

  • How about being a bit devilish and simply giving the job to the most appropriately qualified person, based on merit rather than anything else?

    If the best candidate happens to be female/BME/LGBT as opposed to the average 'straight white male' then that is of course excellent news for diversity. But if the straight white male option is of sounder judgement and would bring more to the role, they must be the obvious choice, surely?

    What we need is to get to the point where the best candidates are not predominately of one gender or colour. By the time it gets to appointing senior judges, the discrimination argument will hopefully be defunct. Hopefully.

    Until then, suggest quotas. And make it a box-ticking exercise rather than attempting to provide the greatest quality of justice in the world.

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  • Quotas are illegal in domestic and European terms. Of course no disappointed white or male or both candidate is likely to sue - it would be professional ruin. But the fact that you can get away with doing something illegal is no excuse for doing it - especially if you are the State.

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  • Is there anyone for adopting the same approach to the election of politicians? If you've got already your quota of white, male, middle class, heterosexual, able bodied elected representatives, then ignore the votes cast, don't bother about the person with most votes and give the seat to the appropriate quota candidate regardless of the number of votes polled by that person. You can call it modern democracy!

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  • Perhaps when talking about huge attrition rates and asking what's to be done we should instead be asking why. In my experience the best judges have tended to be workaholics but such a life isn’t for everyone. Could it be that many more women lawyers want a better work life balance than do their male colleagues?

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