Dobbs J takes up the banner as judiciary falls short on diversity

Diversity has been the Government’s mantra when appointing judges since it came into power in 1997.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) is striving for a judiciary that reflects the demographics of society, but is it doing enough?At the Association of Women Solicitors’ annual dinner earlier this month, Mrs Justice Dobbs, who is the senior judge for diversity, proclaimed that the “figures for the judiciary – the senior judiciary in particular – are disappointing”.

Dobbs J joined the High Court senior bench in 2004. In the following year only one women was appointed. Not one black ethnic minority (BEM) had been made up since 2004.

Dobbs J’s concerns has led her to take an unprecedented move. She has offered to open her door to lawyers to spend a day or two in court with her to “see the world from the bench and get a feel of whether it is a world in which they would feel comfortable”.

The DCA does have a shadowing scheme, but Dobbs J’s heartfelt concerns has made her the first member of the judiciary to offer this independently of the Government.

However, statistics published by the DCA show that all may not be lost.

Overall, judiciary statistics – from the grassroot courts, including county and crown, upwards – show that since 2002 the proportion of women appointed as judges had risen among BEM candidates in the past year female numbers have increased by 5 per cent to 14 per cent.

Diversity at the appointment stage is close to reflecting the demographics of society – 51 per cent of the population is female and 8 per cent is BEM – but the judiciary as a whole better fits Dobbs J’s outlook.

Women hold less than 20 per cent of judicial posts, while BEM individuals account for 5 per cent. The judiciary is still dominated by the traditional white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman last week (12 March) said that these facts had not been lost on the Government and that more needed to be done. The admission came at a Law Society seminar entitled ‘Are you the face of the modern judiciary?’, during which Harman addressed more than 100 solicitors who were interesting in applying to become judges.

However, Harman put the onus on law firms. “Until the profession itself is more diverse, the scope for a more diverse judiciary is constrained. The impetus also has to come from the law firms themselves. There has to be a commitment from within. There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure diversity is taken seriously within the legal profession,” she said.

Her comments have caused much annoyance among the ranks of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which feels that the DCA has been anything but helpful at trying to get prosecuting solicitors into the judiciary.

Crown Prosecution Service officer Ann Crighton said the Government has taken the position that lawyers working for the prosecution would not have sufficient independence, which she believes is “absurd” because “it’s no different from a defence lawyer being up in front of a judge”.

“The DCA is missing out on what is the biggest diverse pool the legal profession can offer,” explained Crighton. “We have the highest proportion of women, black ethnic minority and working class-background lawyers across the profession.”

Harman, along with Law Society chief executive look into the issue to see if anything could be done.

Karen Squibb-Williams, co-chair of the employed bar committee at the Bar Council, said two CPS barristers have been made up as deputy district judges since 2005.

She told The Lawyer that, for the employed bar, the major barrier had been the requirement for strong advocacy skills, but added: “This requirement has been dropped, which has meant that it’s much easier for the employed bar to apply and it also means that the diversity pool has been increased by at least 3,000.”

Mrs justice dobbs, senior judge for diversity
In her address to the Association of Women Solicitors (8 March), Mrs Justice Dobbs stated: “As senior judge for diversity, my door is always open to those who wish to spend a day or two in court with me, seeing the world from the bench and getting a feel of whether it’s a world in which they would feel comfortable. You can contact me by contacting my clerk John Ponting at the Royal Courts of Justice.

“It has to be said that the new initiatives introduced by the Lord Chancellor – salaried part-time sitting, job sharing and in the future the ability to return to practice – make the job more attractive, flexible and suited to the needs of many women.”

Solicitors, do you want to be a judge?
* Only 12 per cent will apply during their legal careers, while almost three-quarters will not and 16 per cent are undecided.
* Nine out of 10 who showed an interest in applying were black ethnic minorities.
* More female solicitors wanted to join the bench compared with their male colleagues – 13 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.
* More than a third of solicitors say that, if it was possible to return to practice after being a judge, they may consider applying.

Female appointments to the bench
* No woman has been appointed to the High Court since October 2005.
* Only two out of the 22 appointees since 2004 at the High Court were women, while none are from black ethnic minority backgrounds.
* Among the 194 senior judges, there are 78 “missing women”, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).
* It will take around 40 years for women to reach an equal number to that of men on the bench, an EOC report states.