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Diversity dilemma: Supreme Court seeks applications from ‘widest range’ of candidates after Lady Black’s early retirement leaves one woman on top bench

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Still no BAME justice

The Supreme Court faces a further setback to diversity among its judicial ranks following the announcement that Lady Black will be retiring over the Christmas break.

Jill Black, 66, will retire after 21 years as a judge but little more than three years as a justice of the Supreme Court. Her early retirement means the country’s highest court now has only one woman, Lady Arden, on the 12-member bench. The remaining ten members are men, all of whom are white.

The Supreme Court now seeks applications “from the widest range of applicants” for Lady Black’s replacement. It particularly encourages applications from “those who would increase the diversity of the court”, according to an advert for the judicial vacancy.

It comes after president Lord Reed said last month he hopes to see a BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) justice on the bench before he takes mandatory retirement in six years’ time.

The court added that, while the successful applicant will be selected on merit, “if the commission considers two persons to be of equal merit, it may prefer one of them over the other for the purpose of increasing diversity within the court”.

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Lawyers reacted to the news of Lady Black’s early retirement, with Dinah Rose QC describing it as “very disappointing”. The Blackstone Chambers silk and president of Magdalen College, Oxford, added, “the court’s genuine desire to improve its diversity remains hamstrung by its appointments system, in my view”.

Greg Callus, a barrister at 5RB, took issue with the lowering of the mandatory retirement age of judges appointed after 1995, from 75 to 70. Lady Black became a judge in 1999 meaning she could have served as a member of the Supreme Court until 2024.

“[It] has been a double-edged sword for recruitment of women into the judiciary,” he wrote. “It improved the ‘dead man’s shoes’ effect (insufficient vacancies to change), but it also stops those who start later or take time to have children reaching the very top.”

In 2017 Lady Black became the second female justice of the Supreme Court after Lady Hale who served as president until her retirement in January this year.

Lady Black is due to retire on 10 January 2021. Her replacement is expected to take up their role next spring.

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