Judicial watchdog slams ‘systematic bias’ in appointment of judges

A judicial watchdog was calling last week for an end to the “tap on the shoulder” method of selecting judges, in a damning report that revealed “systematic bias” in the appointment process.

The Commission for Judicial Appointments (CJA), which is chaired by Sir Colin Campbell, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, welcomed the proposals for an independent Judicial Appointments Commission to take over the selection of judges. But it also argued that such a body was unlikely to be enough on its own to cure the bias of an overwhelmingly white, male judiciary.

“We’ve built up a picture of wider systematic bias in the way that the judiciary and the legal profession operate that affects the position of women, ethnic minority candidates and solicitors in relation to silk and judicial appointments,” the commission claimed. “Action is needed by the Government, the judiciary and the profession to address obstacles to diversity.”

On silk appointments, the commission found a perception among those consulted that applicants needed to fit into a ‘silk mould’. “We did hear irrelevant and inappropriate sentiments expressed, for example to a female candidate’s dress sense,” the report said. “[Such observations] raise questions as to whether outdated and unacceptable attitudes continue to influence some consultation responses.”

The issue of whether the silks system should be abolished, substantially reformed or left untouched has been gathering pace over the last few weeks. “The time has come to bring the debate to a head,” said Lord Falconer in his foreword to the Government’s latest consultation paper concerning the QC system, published in July 2003, ‘Constitutional Reform: The Future of Queen’s Counsel’. At the end of last month an extraordinary general meeting of the Bar Council rejected by an overwhelming majority a motion to ballot the entire bar on its support for the continuance of a system of senior counsel.

Speaking at the time, bar chairman Matthias Kelly QC said: “Support for the public interest benefits of the rank of Queen’s Counsel at the bar is well established and it is the Bar Council’s longstanding policy to assert those benefits.”

Meanwhile, the Law Society is backing the Government’s decision to establish a Judicial Appointments Commission. But Law Society president Peter Williamson said that they were concerned about whether the commission would have “sufficient resources” for reforming procedures. “We believe this will ensure the best chance of introducing modern, fair methods of finding the best people to be judges from the widest available pool of talent, including solicitors, women, disabled lawyers and lawyers of minority ethnic origins,” he said.