Lady Hale: Solicitor-barrister divide to blame for male dominance of the bench

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By CJ McKinney on

Calls for more to be done on gender diversity in Belfast speech

Incoming Supreme Court president Lady Hale says that the traditional division of the legal profession into solicitors and barristers is partly to blame for the lack of female judges.

The former academic and family lawyer told an audience in Belfast that achieving “better representation of half the human race on the bench” should be a priority, but the UK is lagging behind other countries — especially when it comes to judges at the very top.

Hale, who replaces Lord Neuberger as president next month, went on:

I believe that the reason why we have lagged behind is a combination of two factors: first, that we have a legal profession divided into barristers and solicitors; and second, that we have four ranks of the judiciary, with direct entry to each and only limited promotion between them, coupled with traditional assumptions about what sort of lawyer gets what sort of job.

As top QCs tend to get the best judicial jobs, Hale argued, and not many of those are female, that keeps the higher echelons overwhelmingly male. Only 14% of QCs are female, according to the Bar Standards Board.

Promoting from the ranks of more junior judges — where ladies are better represented — might help to solve this, Hale suggests. But she doesn’t recommend ditching the solicitor/barrister divide, “which has much to commend it in terms of efficiency and access to justice”.

Hale remains the only woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court, but Lady Justice Black is set to join her: “so at long last we shall have a second woman on the court”.

In a wide-ranging speech on how to select judges, Hale gently took former BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman to task. Paxman argued in a Financial Times column that it’s strange to ask would-be judges about their sexual preferences, but not their political ones.

This, Hale pointed out, is not because sexual preference is relevant to the job: it’s just for equality monitoring purposes.

And the top judge referenced the controversy over the next Lord Chief Justice. Liz Truss’s decision to disqualify anyone aged over 65 led to “otherwise meritorious candidates being excluded”, Hale said.

Leading legal commentator and Legal Cheek contributor Joshua Rozenberg said at the time that the explanation offered for the decision — which ruled out high-profile candidates like Brian Leveson and Heather Hallett — was not “remotely convincing”.

Hale also raised the intriguing possibility of Jeremy Corbyn helping to select senior judges. She suggests that “the appointments commission could be enlarged by a senior politician from the government and a senior politician from Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, thus introducing an element of democratic involvement while preserving party political neutrality”.

Read Lady Hale’s speech in full below:

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