The president of the Queen’s Bench Division has branded quotas as ‘demeaning’ to women and minority ethnic groups. 

Sir Brian Leveson (pictured) waded into the controversial debate over quotas ahead of the publication of a government-backed report that could put law firms under new pressure to promote women in senior posts.

Giving a lecture in the Isle of Man entitled ‘Justice for the 21st century’, Leveson said quotas were the ‘antithesis of appointment on merit and demeaning whether to women or those from minority ethnic groups’.

‘Making allowance for career breaks or for the consequences of caring responsibilities is one thing,’ Leveson said. ‘That is entirely justifiable because the assessment of merit necessarily embraces potential.’

But creating a ‘principle of appointment’ to achieve gender or ethnic balance ‘will inevitably lead to the inference that those appointments are most decidedly not based on merit alone’, Leveson said.

The judiciary, he added, were taking steps to improve diversity. These include establishing schemes to widen entry into the High Court, and through outreach, mentoring, judicial work-shadowing and flexible working patterns.

‘It is work in progress,’ Leveson said. ‘It is an important one that we all as judges, lawyers and members of society have a stake in realising.’

Later this month the Davies Review, which was originally set up to increase the number of women on boards, is due to publish a report which will recommend women make at least a quarter of posts at FTSE 100 companies.

The profession is currently split on whether quotas should be introduced to tackle the lack of diversity higher up the career ladder.

Last month Vodafone group general counsel Rosemary Martin said quotas were ‘deeply offensive’ but ‘absolutely essential’. However employment lawyer Dame Janet Gaymer said she was not persuaded of the merits of quotas.

Research conducted by the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division during an International Women’s Day Conference in 2012 showed that younger delegates favoured quotas but ‘more established’ women did not, a spokesperson said.

However, both agreed that an ‘expedient’ solution was required to address the gender pay gap, and representation in the boardroom and on the bench.

‘We welcome any constructive response that encourages parity and inclusion, which could never be an insult to those women who lack only the opportunity, not talent, for senior appointments,’ the spokesperson said.