Race, prison, and misguided magistrates: your letters to the editor
Picking up the pace on race
Racism and inequality have rightly been discussed and challenged at great length recently. This is an issue which has an impact on all aspects of society. However, do we as a legal profession need to do more? As the sector which works closest to the black letter law, policy, guidance and legislation, do we need to champion the cause more than any other profession?
The recent Sewell report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published on 31 March, addressed this very complex and vast problem. It outlined a number of recommendations (24 in total). Of those most relevant to the legal profession were recommendation 8: advance fairness in the workplace; 9: investigate what causes existing ethnic pay disparities; and 24: disaggregate the acronym ‘BAME’.
It stated that as of 2019, 21% of lawyers working in law firms in England and Wales were from ethnic minority backgrounds. The largest firms (50-plus partners) have the lowest percentage of ethnic minority partners (8%), while by contrast 36% of one-partner firms have a partner from an ethnic minority background.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s principles state that you must act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the profession, with independence, honesty, integrity and in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion. These principles show that equality and equal opportunity are fundamental. Despite our standards and the report, why does this problem still exist and how can we overcome it?
In the last six months alone we have seen a number of worrying reports in the Gazette exposing serious issues regarding ethnic pay gaps; barriers to progression for junior and senior lawyers; large corporations demanding better diversity from legal panels; and more. Historically, there has been a level of sensitivity and concealment for issues around discrimination. It has traditionally been something swept under the carpet and not as highlighted in the past as it is now. Nonetheless, most lawyers, no matter how experienced, would not want to jeopardise their career and reputation if they are up against a systemic or institutional issue (perhaps more so for the junior lawyer). Coinciding with this huge issue is growing concern for the mental health and wellbeing of junior lawyers. I believe that for many, it is easier to stay quiet and learn to live with the problems as opposed to escalating them.
So what is the solution? It needs to come from the top – and not just partners, CEOs, managing partners and so on. It needs to come from the SRA and the other regulators in the profession. We need to treat inequality and discrimination with the same energy and impact as, for example, misusing a client account. We need clear and heavy sanctions and penalties for individuals and firms that continue to allow an environment where inequality and discrimination occurs. This means sanctioning firms and individuals that perpetuate the root problems such as ethnic pay gaps, lack of representation in recruitment, lack of equal opportunity and more. If we really want change in the profession and the legal community, then now is the time to take action.
Baljinder Singh Atwal
Chair, Birmingham Solicitors’ Group
Prisons for prison’s sake
The government has announced the building of 500 new prison places for women, thus creating the kind of headline that can support a ‘tough on crime’ image that they relentlessly wish to portray.
The trouble is that, yet again, this decision flies in the face of reliable and incontrovertible evidence that custodial sentences for women often create more problems than they solve. This is not to say we should not send women to prison just because they are women; neither am I suggesting that there ought to be some sort of gender-based reduction in sentencing. Both of those ideas would be manifestly mad and unfair. But building further prison places is a very basic and rather wilfully ignorant reaction to an extremely nuanced issue. Women tend to commit the type of offences that attract short custodial sentences; short custodial sentences are disruptive and damaging to the recipient, expensive to the dispenser and of minimal assistance to society’s general efforts to reduce recidivism. Furthermore, women are almost invariably carers or parents, and those who fall into the criminal justice system are frequently victims of abuse. They are rarely straightforward subjects for sentencing.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying the money being invested in these places would be much better spent on alternatives to custody. These could address the underlying issues without causing irreparable damage to the subjects, and those who rely on them. Our justice system was created to solve issues, not to exacerbate them – prison for prison’s sake is cruel and short-sighted beyond belief.
Red Lion Chambers, London EC4
In a letter to the Guardian (30 March) the chair of the Magistrates’ Association, no doubt trying to be helpful, suggested Crown court delays could be reduced by extending the jurisdiction of the magistrates’ courts to 12 months.
But this in itself will probably achieve nothing, as defendants and their lawyers will just as often continue to elect trial by jury.
What would be required is a restriction on the right to elect. This has been proposed in the past and rejected. It could not be introduced without full debate and would probably be deeply unpopular with the public.
The chair also adds, without any attempt to justify the statement, that cases would be dealt with more efficiently by magistrates. Certainly, it would be quicker and cheaper. Whether the verdicts would be more accurate is another question and relevant to efficiency.
Retired circuit judge, Norwich