A quota system should be introduced to address the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the senior judiciary, a report likely to become Labour party policy recommends today.
The report Judicial Diversity: Accelerating Change, by Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC (pictured) and Karon Monaghan QC, also proposes abolishing the circuit system and replacing it with regional appointments.
Another recommendation is that more solicitors should be encouraged to seek appointment to the High Court bench and obstacles to their appointment be removed.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said he hoped that after May 2015’s general election ‘a Labour government will be in a position to put into practice policies that will deliver a more diverse judiciary’.
Among the report’s recommendations are:
- A candidate’s ability to contribute to a diverse judiciary should be taken into account when assessing their merit;
- All judicial posts should be available part time or as a job share unless the need for a full-time appointment can be justified;
- A quota system should be introduced to address the under-representation of women and black and minority ethnic judges in the senior judiciary (including the Supreme Court);
- The circuit system should be abolished and replaced with regional appointments;
- There should be greater progress towards the concept of a judicial career in which promotion can take place from the lower levels of the judiciary to the High Court.
The report says that ‘the time has now come’ for quotas. ‘Without a requirement to appoint qualified women and ethnic minorities, we believe that the pace of change will remain intolerably slow.’
Bindman said: ‘The law cannot command respect if those who administer it do not reflect a diverse population. The senior judiciary is dominated by white males selected from a narrow pool of candidates. It is widely agreed that the efforts so far made to change this and achieve a fair balance of women and ethnic minorities at this level have not been effective.
‘We hope the work we have done and our recommendations will help to make a difference.’
In a section on solicitors, the report notes that only one High Court judge was previously a solicitor (Mr Justice Hickinbottom) and he was not recruited through practice but came through the tribunal system.
‘There is no reason in our view why solicitors should not apply directly from practice for appointment to the High Court bench,’ it says. ‘There is no existing statutory prohibition on recruitment direct to the High Court bench. However, there are few precedents and so no real encouragement for solicitors to apply.’
The report describes Hickinbottom’s precedent as ‘not helpful’, because of his extraordinary commitment. He did not take holidays and worked ‘13-day fortnights’ to achieve his goal while also ‘doing as many billable hours as anyone else in his firm’.
The report adds: ‘That is not a trajectory that those with caring responsibilities (overwhelmingly women) and those seeking to achieve a healthy work-life balance could hope to achieve.’
The report also queries the perception that being an equity partner in a magic circle firm is the ‘hallmark of the highest ability for solicitors’ and therefore indicative of their suitability for the bench.
It adds: ‘There are many solicitors who choose to pursue a career in publicly funded (legal aid) work or work as employed solicitors with public authorities or commercial entities who are exceptionally well-qualified for office.
‘Making the assumption that it is the magic circle graduates that make the best judges will simply replicate the patterns that exist among the senior judiciary.’
The report acknowledges that many solicitors find it difficult to secure release from their firms for judicial tasks. But it says little about how this barrier can be overcome, other than appealing to the Law Society and the judiciary to ‘encourage’ and ‘assist’ them while citing the ‘public service’ ethos.
It accepts that the Society has already done much to help members make the bench.
‘More effective measures need to be introduced to ensure solicitors have the opportunity to secure judicial appointment, including at the highest level,’ the section on solicitors concludes.