Judges should be wary of an ‘unconscious bias’ against those from different backgrounds who are poor, foreign and uneducated, the president of the Supreme Court has said. 

Lord Neuberger (pictured) said judges need to be ‘sensitive’ about the fact they usually come from a more ‘privileged sector of society in both economic and educational terms’ compared to those who appear in court.

In a speech entitled ‘Fairness in the court: the best we can do’, he said: ‘The big problem, as it is everywhere, is with unconscious bias. I dare say that we all suffer from a degree of unconscious bias, and it can occur in all sorts of manifestations’.

This means that judges need to have ‘an understanding of different cultural and social habits’ to show they have equal respect for everyone involved in a trial.

‘A white male public school judge presiding in a trial of an unemployed traveller from Eastern Europe accused of assaulting or robbing a white female public school woman will, I hope, always be unbiased,’ Neuberger said.

But he warned that judges must be aware of what they might be subconsciously thinking and whether they appear neutral to the public.

This means judges need to understand people’s cultural, social and religious or other backgrounds, he said, suggesting that judges should, for example, respect women who choose to keep their faces covered due to their religious beliefs.

‘Well-known examples include how some religions consider it inappropriate to take the oath, how some people consider it rude to look other people in the eye, how some women find it inappropriate to appear in public with their face uncovered, and how people deem it inappropriate to confront others or to be confronted – for instance without an outright denial,’ he said.

In the address to the Criminal Justice Alliance last week he questioned whether England and Wales’s trial procedures are the best way of getting at the truth, and urged judges to recognise how ‘intimidating’ the court process can be for non-lawyers.  

‘In footballing terms, the lawyer standing up and speaking for the first time in court is very much like a professional footballer playing at home on familiar turf where he has been trained, whereas witnesses and jury members are not merely like footballers playing away – they are playing football for the first time,’ he said.