Law firm attitudes are continuing to deter solicitors from applying to join the bench, an influential group of peers heard today, as senior figures from the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) suggested recruitment problems could get worse.

Lord Justice Burnett, vice-chair of the commission, told the House of Lords constitution committee that members ‘continue to hear a great deal’ that many solicitor applicants ‘are put off by the attitude of law firms’ since the issue was highlighted by the committee in a report in 2012.

Burnett said: ‘The reality is, those applying for, particularly, part-time appointments are likely to do so in their forties, which is the time when most professionals are at the height of their earnings power and thus it’s not necessarily welcome to the partners of a big law practice to see someone devoting time elsewhere and seeing his or her ambitions are moving in a different direction.

‘That said, a vast amount of work has been done by the JAC and others to try to encourage more solicitor applicants.’

Burnett told the committee that the commission has a dedicated solicitor member.

He added: ‘We have a very strong voice for encouraging solicitors... all of us spend a great deal of time engaging with solicitors, both the Law Society and firms, speaking to solicitors, writing articles and so forth to encourage solicitor applications.’

JAC chair Lord Kakkar told the committee that the commission is seeing ‘worrying trends’ in its ability to fill certain vacancies.

In a 2015 High Court recruitment exercise, the commission was unable to fill one vacancy. In a 2016 exercise, the commission was unable to fill six vacancies.

Kakkar said: ‘At the moment we are in the process of running a competition to fill 25 High Court positions. If one looks at the matter, there could be a serious shortfall in our ability to nominate candidates to fill those positions.’

While there are some judicial jobs where solicitors are strongly represented, Kakkar told the committee that solicitor figures were not as high in applications to be deputy High Court or High Court judges.

'Why that is so is something our officials have been working very hard to try to discover but simply not been able to find a reason.' 

Problems recruiting sufficient High Court judges are well known, Burnett said. ‘Less known is that the JAC ran into problems recruiting circuit judges last year.’

Following a request for 55 circuit judges, only 44 were selected for appointment.

The commission is currently conducting a recruitment exercise for up to 25 High Court judges. The salary is £179,768.

Kakkar told the committee there will potentially be 120-140 appointment requests for the circuit bench, and as many as 80 for the district bench.

According to the JAC website, a recruitment exercise for an 'unprecedented' 116.5 circuit judges will commence on 23 March. The salary is £133,506.