The number of solicitors in the judiciary is falling, the chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) told a parliamentary committee today, admitting that progress on increasing diversity has been ‘patchy’.

Chairman of the JAC Christopher Stephens (pictured) told the House of Commons Justice Committee that the position for solicitor judges is ‘very bleak’ at the top of the judiciary, with only one High Court judge; a handful of circuit judges and no solicitors in the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court.

Stephens said solicitors account for 66% of judges in tribunals; 38% in the court system and 48% overall, adding that the JAC is monitoring the situation.

Commissioner Mr Justice Bean praised the Law Society’s initiatives in setting up the Solicitor Judges Division and its campaign to get City firms to pledge to support their members to become judges.

Stephens said that the billable hour and partnership model makes some firms ‘pretty hostile’ to the idea of members pursuing a judicial career.

Stephens told the justice committee that since the creation of the JAC in 2006, progress on increasing diversity has been ‘patchy’.

There had, he said, been ‘real success’ with women, with 41% of all appointments, legal and non-legal, being women, and 45% of legal appointments being women.

The proportion of women appointed, he said, is ‘considerably’ greater than in the five years before the JAC, although he accepted that the numbers decline higher up the judiciary.

The JAC, he said, is ‘changing the face of the circuit bench, which Stephens described as the ‘engine room’ of the judiciary. Half of those appointed in the last competition were women and there are now more than 120 female circuit judges.

For black and ethnic minority (BME) groups, he said, the picture was less positive. Although the JAC has consistently appointed 8-10% BME applicants, Stephens accepted that it had not managed to ‘nudge’ the figure upwards.

A large number of BME applicants, he said, fail at various stages of the process because they apply too early in their career.

Stephens told the committee: ‘I am confident that we attract an adequate number of women and BME applicants and our processes don’t discriminate.’

Given the right set of circumstances, he said, there are no barriers to appointment.

Stephens said no progress had been made on getting more lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service or other government departments, which have high numbers of women and BME lawyers, to apply for judicial appointment.

He did not expect a huge improvement in the diversity situation, saying he is ‘absolutely certain’ the number of women in the judiciary would not be 50% within the next five years.

The issue that the most difficult and will become a bigger part of the JAC’s agenda, said Stephens, is social mobility, which he admitted the body are ‘beginners’ at.

To prevent selection panels consciously or subconsciously choosing people based on their school or university, that information is not used as part of the process and so the JAC lacks data on it, but will work to amend that.

More widely, he said, the JAC needs to act to discourage people from applying too early.

To that end it is producing an ‘Am I ready?’ test to give more information about the role and greater guidance on when to apply, so people can ‘self-select’ more intelligently. It will be published towards the end of the year or in early spring 2015.

On expanding the role of the JAC, Stephens said there is ‘some logic’ to it being involved in international appointments, including to the European Court of Human Rights.