Setting targets and raising the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75 would help achieve greater diversity in the judiciary, groups representing women and black lawyers told the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords today.
It would also help if partners and other senior staff in solicitor firms were able to apply for and accept part-time roles in the judiciary without sacrificing their career prospects, the groups added.
Cordella Bart-Stewart, immigration judge and immediate past chairwoman of the Black Solicitors Network (BSN), said: ‘Without targets, there is no real incentive. We need something to measure progress against.’
Association of Women Barristers spokeswoman Frances Burton agreed that ‘targets are good for measuring’. But she added: ‘They are not the solution. What is required is a deeper pool of candidates from which to select.’
Association of Women Solicitors chairwoman Joy Van Cooten was also in favour of targets. ‘The selection process must be more structured than just choosing the candidates who tick the right boxes,’ she said.
BSN chairwoman Nwabueze Nwokolo said: ‘There is a need to expand the thinking around judicial appointments, including giving equality and diversity training to the people who make recommendations for appointments.’
Moving on to pursuing a career on the bench, Bart-Stewart said that her work with the Judicial Appointments Commission had convinced her that there should be ‘careers within the judiciary, rather than judicial careers such as they have in some countries from university onwards’.
Van Cooten said that one way of achieving this would be to raise the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75. She said that this would not, in the words of committee member Lord Pannick QC, ‘ossify the white male judiciary’. Those extra five years could be used to mentor aspiring and junior judges. ‘The judge could sit part-time on the bench and also be a part-time mentor,’ she said.
The spokeswomen for the groups and committee members were all concerned that firms of solicitors were ‘less than encouraging’ when a member of staff wanted to pursue a judicial career.
Van Cooten blamed this attitude on ‘loss of fees’, while Bart-Stewart said: ‘Firms regard partnership as a full-time commitment and even sitting part-time in a judicial role shows that you are uncommitted.’
All groups were opposed to setting quotas for women or minority ethnic judges. They also vetoed allowing parliament to play a role in the appointment of judges. Burton said: ‘The separation of the judiciary and parliament is well established. We should think long and hard before we tinker with it.’
The Constitution Committee of the House of Lords was hearing witnesses as part of its examination of the judicial appointments process.