Helen Grant, the equalities minister, is calling for a more diverse legal profession and judiciary – one with more women and ethnic minority judges in senior posts.
An interview with the London Evening Standard quoted the family solicitor as accusing legal bosses of prolonging male dominance in the judicial system by ‘recruiting in their own image’.
After seeing the impact that a voluntary target of 25% women on boards of FTSE 100 companies had on the corporate world, Grant said she would like to see the same approach taken in the law. ‘Fundamentally I think targets are very good in relation to the development and promotion of women and people from a black and minority ethnic background,’ she was quoted as saying.
Figures for the number of women in senior judicial roles make for unhappy reading. Of the 11 sitting Supreme Court judges, one, Lady Hale, is a woman. Of the heads of division - the lord chief justice, master of the rolls, president of the family division, chancellor of the High Court and president of the queen’s bench, every single one is a man. And men make up nine out of 10 lord justices of appeal, 85% of High Court judges and 83% of circuit judges.
Grant, as many have done before her, laments the slow pace of change.
Her remarks are undoubtedly true and if targets are what it takes to get more women appointed then I’d be all for them. Some feel this strategy might be seen as patronising, but that view implies that women are currently not being selected because they lack the skills or ability, which I do not believe to be the case.
Women are not being selected or are deterred from applying either because of the way the profession frames their careers, the weight attached to their skills and experience or flaws in the selection process and unwitting discrimination in this process that means lawyers and judges make selections mirroring the present make-up.
The government has made proposals in the Crime and Courts Bill designed to increase judicial diversity – increasing the number of lay members sitting on panels appointing senior judges and to allow more flexible working arrangements for judges.
While these may go some way to address the issue, the impact of the government’s legal aid cuts in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act will outweigh any improvements they bring. Women and black and minority ethnic lawyers are disproportionately represented in small firms that do legal aid work. By removing from scope huge areas of legal aid work that are done by large numbers of women and BME lawyers, the government’s policies will undermine Grant’s laudable aims.
If Grant is serious about wanting to see a more diverse judiciary, she should have encouraged her party away from savaging legal aid.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
Follow Catherine on Twitter