The Law Society has long stated its belief that the judiciary should better reflect the diversity of the society it serves rather than being the preserve of the white, heterosexual, Oxbridge-educated, male barrister.
Last week (15 June) it held a reception to coincide with its response to Baroness Neuberger’s recent report on judicial diversity and to highlight the contribution of solicitor judges, who remain in the minority among the higher echelons of the judiciary.
The report proposes 53 recommendations to attract underrepresented groups, including engaging with schools and colleges and promoting part-time positions, in acknowledgement that, despite the best efforts of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), women, ethnic minorities and those from working class backgrounds remain underrepresented.
Many judges at the event felt the make-up of the judiciary was changing, but almost uniformly acknowledged more needed to be done. Camberwell Green Magistrates district judge Tak Ikram believes socio-economic factors still play a huge part – more so than age, gender and ethnicity – and that the introduction of tuition fees and student loans have made the situation worse.
“Someone from a working class background might think twice about entering the law because of the massive cost burden of taking professional exams,” he said. “I never thought it would actually become more difficult for working class people to reach this level.”
Working class youths, he added, do not see the judiciary as a viable career due to the disconnection between their own lives and what they see as the largely privileged backgrounds of most judges.
“We need to try to change society’s perception of judges,” he added. “The JAC is a major step forward, but the Law Society needs to ensure its membership reflects the diversity of society. The profession needs to try harder in that respect. If people are thinking, ’they don’t choose people like me’, then they’re not going to come forward.”
Kingston upon Thames district judge Azmat Nisa denied that class is an issue in entering the judiciary, because by becoming a solicitor “you’ve already overcome the class thing”. While she supports the need for a more diverse judiciary, she is equally strong in her belief that this should be achieved purely on merit and not by positive discrimination.
“I think people of my generation are now starting to come through and we’ll start to see changes,” she asserts. “But appointments should always be based on merit – anything else would be insulting and could create two tiers of judges in terms of quality. That’s not a message the judiciary should be sending out.”
Nisa is equally optimistic that solicitor judges will be better represented at senior levels. “The bar has traditionally kept these positions to themselves,” she said, “but that will all change – just give it a generation. It won’t come overnight and it will take time, but I think that’s the best kind of changes because it’s permanent.”
Judge Monty Trent, president of the Association of HM District Judges, claimed that some of the issues surrounding judicial appointments are ”self-created”.
“We need to encourage people to believe in themselves,” he said. “We’re now getting younger people entering the profession and around 30 per cent of district judges are women. There’s a huge amount of support available .
“It doesn’t matter about your class or background – if you’re capable of doing the work you’ll get appointed. The JAC has made things much fairer and more transparent.”