Research: Israel, Italy, New Zealand and South Africa all have more diverse judiciaries than us

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By Katie King on

Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and the USA too

The United Kingdom has one of the least diverse senior judiciaries in the world and “unpopular” decisions must be taken if we are going to ensure this improves.

These are the recommendations of human rights group JUSTICE, whose new report raises serious concerns about the make-up of our judges in terms of their gender, ethnicity and schooling.

On the former, the report notes that 21% of Court of Appeal, 21% of High Court and 26% of Circuit Bench judges are women. In the highest court in the country, the Supreme Court, there’s just one female justice (8%) — Lady Hale. When compared to other countries’ senior courts, this is incredibly poor, as this table shows:

To make a continental comparison, last year we reported that the UK is at the bottom of the Europe-wide gender diversity league table. Only Azerbaijan (11%), Armenia (23%), Northern Ireland (23%) and Scotland (23%) have a lower percentage of female professional judges.

The new report, JUSTICE’s third on judicial diversity, also criticises the senior judiciary for its “almost total lack of visible BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] people.” It points out that just two judges in the entire High Court and Court of Appeal are non-white (less than 2%). JUSTICE describes this as “simply unacceptable”.

The impact of an almost all-white judiciary has been brought to the forefront of our minds this week by an article from Doughty Street barrister Tunde Okewale. The criminal law specialist believes the over-representation of BAME defendants can be explained by under-representation in the judiciary. He asks:

If a judge, barrister, solicitor or police officer cannot relate to the ordinary people who rely on them to provide justice, can justice really be just?

JUSTICE’s report is also very critical of the judiciary’s disproportionate recruitment of privately educated lawyers.

In the High Court and the Court of Appeal, approximately 75% of judges are privately educated; this has remained constant since the 1980s. Just 7% of the general population is privately educated. Though the report does note not all non-state schooled judges reason in the same way, there will be “far greater variety of thought when most of the senior judiciary do not hail from this fairly narrow subset of society.”

The lack of diversity is clear; “the question is what to do about it.” Though the likes of Hale have long called for the introduction of gender diversity targets, this idea has not yet been taken up, with authorities punting for more of a ‘wait and see’ approach. This won’t do, JUSTICE says:

Simply leaving change to organic processes is taking far too long and, on current projections, will never deliver sufficient diversity to the bench.

Going beyond Hale’s recommendations, JUSTICE urges the introduction of selection body targets “with teeth”, meaning the bodies in question will be monitored and must report their progress to the justice select committee. Interestingly, the report also recommends the creation of “an upward judicial career path”, whereby junior lawyers with aspirations to sit on the bench take up an “entry-level” position and “work their way to the top.”

Read the report in full below:

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