Justice secretary moots part-time judges as means of diversifying bench

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has put forward proposals for more part-time judges and increased diversity at the bench as a way of modernising the judiciary.

Kenneth Clarke
Kenneth Clarke

In a consultation released this week, Clarke highlighted wide-ranging proposals that the Ministry of Justice intends to implement in order to modernise and improve the diversity of judicial appointments and create a more rounded experience for those using the courts.

Among the key reforms will be an increased focus on diversifying the bench. At present, only 13.7 per cent of senior judges are women and 3.1 per cent are from black and Asian groups, compared to 51 per cent and 12 per cent of the wider population.

Announcing the consultation, Clarke said that the calibre of judges should never be compromised but added that “swathes of talent are going untapped”.

“Ability is not confined to certain narrow sections of society, in certain racial, social or other groups. Becoming a judge must be, and must be seen to be, open to everyone with right skills and qualities,” he stressed.

In order to achieve diversification at the highest echelons of the legal profession, Clarke said that when considering two candidates of equal ability, there should be presumption in favour of selecting the person from an underrepresented group.

He went on to address the need to accommodate more women in the judiciary.

“I’m especially concerned to open the judiciary,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the case that an able woman who seeks a post in the senior judiciary is at a disadvantage because she chose to pause her career to have a family.”

His statement echoes earlier comments from Baroness Hale, who called for increased gender diversity at the apex of law at a recent event held in conjunction with Norton Rose’s women’s network (24 October 2011).

In establishing a more diverse bench, Clarke believes that the experience of those who use the courts will greatly improve.

Other key changes highlighted in the consultation include the extension of salaried part-time judicial roles to the High Court and the Court of Appeal and putting an independent lay person in charge of selection panels for both the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court.

The consultation coincides with Supreme Court president Lord Phillips’s announcement that counsel appearing before the court may ditch traditional courtroom dress (21 November 2011). According to a spokesperson, the move is in line with the court’s goal of making the legal process as accessible as possible.