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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Plans to increase female judges
Lady Justice Hale
Lady Hale became Britain's first female Law Lord
Plans to increase the number of female judges in England and Wales by encouraging flexible working hours are being set out by the government.

Ministers hope the move would make the job more attractive to women juggling careers with looking after children.

Suggestions outlined in a consultation paper include part-time working for judges at Crown Court level and below and court sittings at weekends.

The paper also considers ways to raise the number of ethnic minority judges.

The process by which appointments occur is not helpful to making sure there is this diversity
Lord Falconer

About half of new barristers and solicitors are women but as few as one in six of these progress to the judiciary.

Lady Justice (Brenda) Hale became the first female Law Lord in January, becoming one of 12 judges sitting in the highest court in the land.

It is thought many women are put off by the terms and conditions, which are not seen as family friendly.

Weekend courts

Allowing courts to hear cases at weekends is among the suggestions being considered, but BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw says this would probably only be appropriate in civil cases.

15.8% of court judges are female
3.4% of court judges are from minority ethnic groups
59% of law graduates are female
Only 7% of High Court judges are female.
In 1998-1999, 20.1% of all appointments to courts were women
By 2002-2003, that figure had risen to 22.4%
In 1998-1999, 3.1% of all appointments to courts were black or Asian
By 2002-2003, that figure had risen to 6.4%
In Canada, a quarter of judges in federal courts are women

Other suggestions include a career break scheme and better tracking and assessment of diversity in the legal profession.

Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer says he is impressed by Canada, where a quarter of judges in federal courts are women, thanks in part to a pro-active recruitment policy.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there were several reasons why judges tended to be white men.

"I think women, people from black and minority ethnic groups and disabled people haven't felt confident that the system would appoint them," he said.

"Being a judge is often quite a difficult thing to combine with family life. The process by which appointments occur is not helpful to making sure there is this diversity."

There must be a "will and absolute determination" by those appointing judges to achieve greater diversity, but said judges would continue to be appointed on merit.

The Bar

Chairman of the Bar Council Stephen Irwin QC said: "The Bar will do everything it can to make this work" but added that the government needs to do its part too.

"Already the positive steps that we take on education, training and access to the profession mean that half of new entrants to the Bar are women and nearly a fifth are from an ethnic minority background," he said.

"We need to do all that we can to ensure that every barrister with an interest in a judicial career is able to take up that option."

But he added: "We can only make barristers of those people who are able to get access to higher education and we are concerned that tuition fees will make it harder for those of modest means to opt for a career in the law."

[Judges] don't even reflect the legal profession
Peter Herbert, Society of Black Lawyers

Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, said people needed to see society reflected more clearly on the bench to have confidence in the system.

"They don't even reflect the profession," he told Today.

One in four law students were from ethnic minorities yet there were no judges from these groups in the high courts, he said.

Mr Herbert called for fast-tracking of those from minority groups.

Government 'should not interfere'

Lord Chief Justice, Lord ord Woolf, said it would be an "indirect insult" to anybody to be appointed on anything other than merit.

He added: "We could have changed the face of our judiciary very quickly if we had been prepared to sacrifice that principle - but we have not been."

Shadow constitutional affairs secretary Oliver Heald said the government should not interfere in the process.

He added: "The government should devote its energies to ensuring that prisoners serve adequate and full sentences."

Why are there so few women judges?
12 Jan 04  |  Magazine

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