Law firms continue to obstruct solicitors who aspire to be judges, the government has acknowledged, as outreach programmes seek to broaden the profile of the judiciary.
The Ministry of Justice has vowed to better understand the reasons why there is a perception that those with advocacy experience are preferred as candidates.
The admissions came in an official response to the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report into judicial appointments, published in November, which called for a ‘significant cultural shift’ to improve wider recruitment. The report highlighted that the percentage of judges in courts with a non-barrister background fell from 37% in 2014 to 34% this year.
Solicitors will be one of the target groups for the Judicial Appointments Commission, the government confirmed. Targeted outreach will be undertaken for solicitors, chartered legal executives and other under-represented groups.
‘Existing research into barriers to application in indicates that solicitor candidates are less likely to feel supported by their employer in applying for judicial posts,’ added the response.
‘The aim of this [outreach programme] is to raise awareness of judicial roles and tackle misconceptions about the selection process and judicial careers more generally.’
The response notes that steps have already been put in place to support prospective eligible candidates. The JAC will work alongside the Judicial Diversity Forum to help the Law Society and law firms to encourage solicitors to apply.
The MoJ is non-committal about several areas of concern flagged up by the Constitution Committee but does appear ready to listen to arguments about contentious issues.
The government says it ‘recognises the value in considering the question’ of whether judges should be allowed to return to practice, and it will seek the views of the profession and judiciary on whether to change this convention.
‘There could potentially be some benefits to a change in the convention, such as increasing the attractiveness of a judicial career for those who only wish to spend part of their legal career in judicial office,’ said the response. ‘However, there are long standing arguments in favour of the status quo.’
The government also suggests it will consider a change to the mandatory retirement age for judges, although it stresses that the current age limit of 70 supports the objective of increasing judicial diversity by balancing the need for experienced judges with opportunities for new appointments.
Law Society vice president Christina Blacklaws said: ’The Law Society is keen to work with law firms to help support solicitors who aspire to become judges. There are many benefits to firms when their colleagues join the judiciary which must, of course, be balanced against the potentially competing business realities of meeting client needs.
’Without doubt the skills solicitors develop in practice are more and more relevant to the changing court environment. Many solicitors demonstrate the expertise needed to be an effective judge: intellect, the ability to be fair and even-handed, authority, and advanced communications skills. The solicitor profession has a vital part to play ensuring our world-renowned judiciary is as diverse as the society it serves and I would encourage all solicitors to consider whether a judicial role might be right for them.’