Lawyers with no judicial experience given a route to the High Court – a controversial but bold move.
Last week’s announcement by the judiciary that it is taking steps to support a more diverse section of the legal community to become High Court judges was positive and encouraging.
The special mentoring programme - which will be open to women, people from minority ethnic backgrounds, and also state-educated white candidates whose parents did not go to university - is an attempt to redress the balance that currently weighs in favour of traditional candidates.
But the judiciary is at pains to point out that just because a candidate has been through the mentoring programme, that doesn’t guarantee them success in the rigorous selection process, which is based on merit alone. And applicants for the mentoring programme must still, of course, have the qualifications needed for the position of High Court judge.
No one would pretend that this mentoring programme is going to transform the judiciary’s diversity deficit overnight. But it is a step in the right direction, and tackles the problem in a practical way, which should be applauded.
There is also a second move afoot, which may be a little more controversial. This July, the Judicial Appointments Commission will be running a selection exercise for up to 14 fee-paid deputy High Court judges; no previous judicial experience will be required. This is quite a bold move in my view, and is intended to ‘provide a route to the High Court for those for whom the traditional recorder route has been a disincentive’.
It should help to attract more solicitors, in-house lawyers and academics to the bench.
Some will feel it is a step too far for lawyers who have never sat as a judge to start their judicial career at such a high level. The new judge may know plenty about the law itself, but will they fully understand the workings of the courtroom, and the way things are done?
But perhaps lawyers who have not risen through the judicial ranks, but instead who arrive at the High Court bench with fresh eyes and a fresh attitude, could be just what we need right now.
After all, being a judge has changed. It is not the same job that it once was. Gone are the days when a judge can sit back and let the advocates get on with it. Firstly, they are now expected to proactively manage cases. Secondly, the reality now is that in many instances, at least one of the parties will not actually have an advocate to represent them at all – and they will need a judge who is willing to help them, and able to communicate with them.
The surge in litigants in person makes the need for a more diverse, more accessible judiciary more urgent than ever. Let’s hope these new initiatives will speed up the pace of change.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine and a former news editor at the Law Society Gazette