How ‘endemic inequality’ plagues London’s judiciary

·4-min read
   (PA Archive)
(PA Archive)

Judges from an ethnic minority background make up fewer than one in six currently practising in London courts, in what has been described as “endemic inequality” by critics.

Of 1,412 judges in post in London courts, just 150 - 12 per cent - are recorded as being from an ethnic minority, statistics published this month reveal.

City University Professor Tamara Hervey said the lack of diversity among the judiciary was an “ongoing failure”.

“It’s the result of long-standing structural discrimination that’s been endemic in our society…that doesn’t mean it right.”

Of the 150, 71 judges identify as Asian or British Asian, 24 as Black or Black British, 40 as ‘mixed’ and 15 as ‘other ethnic group’. The ethnicity of 137 judges is unknown.

Meanwhile 1,125 are recorded as white.

Ms Hervey’s research into diversity in legal education found that problems occur before the appointment stage and even before education.

“The problem begins long before children even reach school. So problems don’t just lie in legal education and they don’t just lie in the recruitment of judges and they don’t just lie in earlier stages of legal careers, they go across the whole of how our society is structured,” she said.

“Our research, and that of others, has shown your socio-economic background is a really important aspect of your progression within the world of the law, particularly in more senior levels of the legal profession.”

Human rights charity Justice told the Standard improvements to diversity were “unacceptably slow”.

In 2021, of judges serving in London courts who declared their ethnicity, 11 per cent identified as an ethnic minority, and just 10 per cent in 2020.

Increasing numbers of applications are coming from ethnic minority candidates - this past year they accounted for almost a quarter of applications, Justice said.

But these high application rates are failing to translate into appointments – white applicants were 58 per cent more likely to be appointed than BAME candidates, Justice said.

Similarly, applicants who attended state school continue to be less successful than those who went to private school.

Justice legal director Stephanie Needleman said it is important the judiciary appears legitimate in the eyes of the public, particularly in London where the population is so diverse.

“Not only do different perspectives result in better decision-making, but the consequence of recruiting from a narrow pool means that the judiciary is not benefiting from the best available talent – it cannot be that the best judges are predominantly white men.”

Ms Hervey said the judiciary must represent the population it serves, but the latest population estimates by ethnic group indicate it is not.

Those identifying as White British accounted for 43.4 per cent of London’s population in 2019, compared with 78.4 per cent for England and Wales overall, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Excluding White British, the most common ethnic groups in London were Other White (14.6 per cent), Black African (7.9 per cent), and Indian (7 per cent).

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association said: “Whilst there may be some signs of progress in terms of the percentage of BAME practitioners within the judiciary ...when one looks at the number of black senior practitioners and judges, figures remain low both generally and in terms of the percentages relative to the population as a whole.

“The increasing exodus of criminal barristers from the profession will, regrettably, rapidly put into reverse the progress achieved on diversity at all levels within the criminal bar over a generation, and thus have a swift detrimental impact on any improvements underway to tackle diversity among the judiciary.”

Ms Hervey recommended increasing education around unconscious bias as one solution to improve diversity in the judiciary.

“One of the things that would make a difference is understanding how widespread unconscious bias works and how we can be aware that everybody has unconscious bias.”

The professor also recommended blind selection processes and “massive” investments in earlier stages of education.

“There aren’t any short term fixes for this kind of endemic inequality,” she said.

“One of the things that we want to do at the City of Law School is to make sure our students understand...ways in which some of our students are advantaged, not through merit but through life chances that they’ve had so far.”

Ms Needleman urged senior levels of the judiciary and the sector to have “a genuine recognition, understanding and acknowledgement of the scale and severity of the problem and its impact on the quality of justice”.

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office told the Standard judge appointments will “inevitably” reflect the social make-up of the profession.

“The Judiciary’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy demonstrates a clear commitment to improving the diversity of the judiciary.

“Alongside its own programmes and initiatives we work with the legal professions and the independent Judicial Appointments Commission to widen the diversity of the pool of candidates applying for judicial posts.”

In the strategy’s latest update, it outlined a number of goals already underway, including outreach in schools and the wider community to “dispell the myths that surround the judiciary”.

However it admitted this progress had been hindered by the pandemic.

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