The government and senior judiciary must work with the legal profession to bring about a 'significant cultural shift', particularly in law firms, to encourage more solicitors to apply for judicial appointment, a high-profile committee of peers has said.
After conducting a follow-up inquiry to its 2012 report on judicial appointments, the House of Lords constitution committee concludes today that a fresh recruitment problem has emerged because of the reduced attraction of becoming a judge.
Progress to address concerns about the preferential treatment of barristers for judicial appointment has been slow, the committee says, after hearing evidence earlier this year from senior legal figures who lifted the lid on the factors deterring many solicitors from pursuing a career in the judiciary.
Judicial diversity statistics for 2017 show the percentage of judges in courts with a non-barrister background has fallen from 37% to 34% since 2014. The committee encourages the Judicial Appointments Commission to gather data on the reasons why applicants are not successful. It recommends that the lord chancellor, senior judiciary and professional bodies work with firms to encourage a cultural change to provide better support for solicitors applying for judicial appointments.
The committee suggests the lord chancellor and lord chief justice tap into an important potential source of ethnically diverse recruits - Crown Prosecution Service and government lawyers.
The committee acknowledges potential conflict of interest concerns. However, the lord chancellor and lord chief justice are encouraged to consider how CPS and government lawyers can gain relevant judicial experience without compromising public perception of the judiciary's independence and impartiality.
'This might involve, for example, allowing government lawyers to sit to try cases when they are either geographically removed from their normal place of work or when the subject matter lies outside their usual areas of work,' the committee says.
The committee also asks the lord chancellor and lord chief justice to examine the 'continuing value' of the long-standing convention that prevents full-time judges from returning to private practice. Acknowledging that the concept of judges returning to practice law after they retire from the bench is controversial, the committee notes that part-time judges may continue to practise while sitting on the bench.
Meanwhile, the committee takes a swipe at former lord chancellor Liz Truss. Truss rebutted suggestions she should have done more when judges came under fire over the EU article 50 Brexit judgment.
The committee says there is a difference between criticism and abuse. 'In such cases, the lord chancellor's constitutional duty is clear - as stated in the oath of office, the lord chancellor must defend the independence of the judiciary. Should members of the judiciary suffer such personal attacks in future, we expect any person holding the office of lord chancellor to take a proactive stance in defending them publicly, as they are unable to defend themselves.'
The committee makes a point of welcoming 'the new lord chancellor's commitment to be "resolute and unflinching" in defending the independence of the judiciary'.