Political involvement in the appointment of judges is needed to bring about a more diverse judiciary, a leading academic told a House of Lords constitution committee inquiry into the fairness and effectiveness of the present judicial appointments system today.

Experts also said suggested that widening the definition of ‘merit’ as a criterion for appointment to the bench would improve diversity by encouraging more solicitors to apply.

Cheryl Thomas, professor of judicial studies at University College London, told the committee that political leadership was required to achieve diversity.

‘President Clinton said that he wanted a judiciary that looked like America and that is what began to happen,’ she said.

‘If we want diversity, we need political leadership.'

Professor Alan Paterson, director of the University of Strathclyde’s centre for professional legal studies, also supported political involvement, saying that it was not feasible to expect the present Judicial Appointments Commission to ‘break the log jam’ and make the judiciary genuinely diverse.

He said: ‘This is only possible for politicians.

'The appointments system was transformed in Canada because politicians said they wanted to see women and people from ethnic minorities who can do the job on every shortlist.’

Paterson added that the independence of the judiciary would not be compromised because it would still be the JAC appointing judges, not politicians.

Lord Irvine of Lairg, a committee member and former Lord Chancellor, said: ‘Surely it is a simple question of appointing the best.’

Thomas replied: ‘There are lots of the best. You could have three outstanding candidates of equal merit and then make a choice about the constitution of the judiciary you want to see.’

Paterson said: ‘Best is not an objective criteria. Solicitors are not coming forward because of the notion that you have to be very good at advocacy, which is not the case.

'Solicitors also specialise increasingly early in their careers and many judicial positions require more general skills.

'There needs to be a broader interpretation of merit, with the offer of training for solicitors who apply.’

Dr Erika Rackley, Durham University senior lecturer in law, said that there was no tension between merit and diversity if it was accepted that a diverse judiciary did a better job than a non-diverse one.

Thomas agreed, saying there was ‘some empirical evidence that a diverse judiciary can improve decision making’.

Today’s evidence session was the first in a series that is expected to continue until the end of the year.