A legal profession divided into barristers and solicitors has contributed to the UK's judiciary lagging in diversity, the incoming president of the Supreme Court has suggested.

Lady Hale, who takes over from Lord Neuberger in October as head of the highest court in the UK, said traditional assumptions 'about who gets which sort of judicial job' should be abandoned. Hale was called to the bar in 1969. 

Hale told the Constitutional Law Summer School in Belfast this month that women making up a fifth of the High Court and Court of Appeal, and a sixth of the Supreme Court, was 'not really a cause for celebration' nearly 100 years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

She cited a legal profession divided into barristers and solicitors as one reason why the UK lags behind countries such as Canada, which has made concerted efforts to encourage women to the bench.

Secondly, there are four ranks of the judiciary, with direct entry to each and limited promotion between them, 'coupled with traditional assumptions about what sort of lawyer gets what sort of job'.

Hale said: 'Thus very successful QCs are appointed to the High Court bench; less successful QCs, senior juniors and some solicitors are appointed to the circuit bench; solicitors and a few barristers are appointed to the district bench, whether in the county courts or the magistrates' courts; and a wide variety of lawyers - barristers, solicitors and academics - become tribunal judges.'

Hale said the concept of a divided legal profession should not be abandoned, 'but I do suggest that we should abandon our traditional assumptions about who gets which sort of judicial job and look for the best wherever it may be found. And that should include nurturing and promoting the best from the lower ranks of the judiciary to the higher ranks'.

Paying tribute to the only solicitor judge in the Court of Appeal, she said: 'Lord Justice Hickinbottom is a shining example of this, but we need more.'

Last month the senior judiciary expressed anxiety about efforts to recruit solicitors to the bench.