Women, ethnic minorities and solicitors: the courts need you

The judiciary is not renowned for being an exemplary equal opportunities employer and, for this reason, the recent appointment of a teenage “disc jockey of Asian origin” (as the tabloids put it) as the youngest-ever magistrate caught the public imagination.

It transpired that Anand Limbachia was in fact a sober-minded civil servant who had never DJ-ed in his life and who was rather overwhelmed by the press’s interest in his appointment when he was sworn in at Chichester Crown Court in May at the tender age of 19 years. So far he has refused to speak to the press. This will no doubt be regarded as a shame for the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has just spent £400,000 on advertising in an attempt to recruit an extra 1,000 justices of the peace to reflect the UK’s varied society. It will be keen to find a willing poster boy for the campaign.

Even on the lowest rung of the judicial ladder, social diversity remains an elusive goal for the Government. Although around half of all magistrates are women, less than one in 10 come from an ethnic minority (currently 8.5 per cent), and perhaps more alarmingly, only a tiny fraction (4 per cent) of the 28,500 magistrates in England and Wales are below the age of 40.

The old stereotype of the magistracy being a hobby for white, middle-class men (and women) of near pensionable age sadly remains pretty accurate despite real attempts by the present Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer and his predecessor Derry Irving to recruit from a wider gene pool.

It is notable that eight out of 10 judges (81 per cent) still come from privileged Oxbridge backgrounds. However, when the Commission for Judicial Appointments, the independent body that audits the system of appointing judges and QCs, recently suggested such a background actually helped judicial careers and, more particularly, that “male, Oxbridge-educated barristers fared disproportionately well”, it was shot down. “This is simply wrong – wrong in fact, wrong in implication and wrong in conclusion,” Lord Falconer insisted in a short-tempered response. It is fair to say that the Lord Chancellor, who read law at Cambridge, is a bit touchy about any suggestion of the old school tie.

But change is on its way to a system that was described by Lord Hailsham as “almost as foolproof as it could be” two decades ago.

“My strong view is that, over time, we will not continue to have the best judges unless we increase their diversity,” Lord Falconer said in November in a conference on the subject. But change takes time and today’s judiciary is made up of those who started out back in the decades from the 1950s through to the 1970s. There are roughly twice as many women and ethnic minority judges as there were 10 years ago. And while women comprise the lion’s share of new entrants into the legal profession, that statistic has yet to translate into bottoms on the bench. At present, approximately 16 per cent of all judges are women, only two appeal judges are women and only one law lord is a ‘law lady’ (Dame Brenda Hale).

“A private members’ club for privileged white men” was how Vera Baird QC, Labour MP for Redcar, recently described the public’s perception of the UK’s senior judiciary. She is pinning her hopes on the Judicial Appointments Commission, which will replace the old system of ‘secret soundings’ with a more transparent system from next April. At the heart of the problem are the ‘soundings’, or consultations, taken by senior judges to identify candidates for the job of judge, Baird contended. “Many believe this system, in which those already in the club choose who else should join, has inevitably led to more of the same sort – privileged male lawyers – being chosen,” she said.

Last month Lord Falconer started a recruitment drive for judges among another oppressed minority – solicitors. “Solicitors are a huge untapped pool of talent for the judiciary,” the Lord Chancellor said. At the November conference he proposed allowing judges to take career breaks and go back into practice in an attempt to encourage women, ethnic minorities and solicitors to seek judicial posts. In particular he recommended that solicitors be allowed to count time they spend shadowing judges against compulsory annual training hours. So far there is only one solicitor to have crossed to the other side and become a High Court judge – the former Herbert Smith partner Lawrence Collins, who left private practice in 2000.