Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Broadening Britain's judicial ranks

By Daniel Sandford
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

Judges tend to be white, middle-class, public school-educated men
Judges in England and Wales are holding their first conference to try to increase the number of women and people from ethnic minorities in their ranks.

The statistics tell their own story.

The number of law lords from an ethnic minority - zero. The number of women who are law lords - one out of 12.

The number of lord justices of appeal from an ethnic minority - zero. The number of women who are lord justices of appeal - three out of 37.

The figures are from 1 April 2008, but little has changed since.

Further down the judicial food chain things are not much better at the level of recorder (part-time judge). Out of 1,305 recorders only 194 are women and only 61 are from ethnic minorities.

The problem has been taxing the government for years but the creation of the Judicial Appointments Commission has had only a limited impact so far. It was set up in 2006 partly to try to reduce any "old boys' network" effect.

Who cares?

But in 2007/8, of the new appointments by the commission, only 34% were women and 8% were from ethnic minorities. At that rate things will take a long time to change.

It begs the question, does it matter? Surely judges should make their decisions based on the law and the facts before them in court? In a highly-developed legal system such as the one in England and Wales any prejudices are left at the door of the oak-panelled courtrooms, are they not?

But it is not as simple as that. There are good reasons for wanting diversity in the ranks of our judges.

Just as it is very important for the public - society at large - to see that there is a diverse judiciary it is also important for the profession
Judge Barbara Mensah
It is seen as important that victims, witnesses, jurors, litigants and defendants feel that the bench is representative of wider society. Clearly judges need to be talented lawyers and incorruptible but surely they do not also need to be public school-educated men?

Among other things drawing judges from a wider pool would increase the chances of them having heard of famous footballers, musicians and soap stars, thus avoiding the perennial mocking from the tabloid press.

More importantly, it would also increase the chances of some judges understanding what it is like to grow up feeling like an outsider in society.

Her Honour Judge Barbara Mensah sits as a circuit judge at Luton Crown Court, and is the very opposite of that cliché, the Oxbridge-educated old buffer.

Born in Ghana, she was sent to school in England aged six. She studied philosophy at the University of Wales in Swansea before training to be a barrister.

Even her career has been unusual, with a period spent working in the private sector. She came into judging through sitting on a Financial Services Tribunal and realising that she liked the work.

Role models

"Go down any High Street now," she says, " and you see such a diverse population. And when people appear in court either as witnesses or as defendants or as litigants, they want to see that reflected in the bench as well.

"Because there is a perception otherwise that they are not going to get justice - I think a wrong perception - but there is that perception, that they may not get somebody who's understood their particular background."

Judge Barbara Mensah
Judge Barbara Mensah was put off by not seeing any judges like her

What is more, the thinking goes, if we want the best people available to become judges, then highly-talented lawyers who are women or from a racial minority need to see role models on the bench.

Otherwise they might not even think it is worth applying. Or they might assume any conversation with their fellow judges would be limited to cricket, golf and fine wine, and decide the company does not sound that stimulating.

Judge Barbara Mensah says that "just as it is very important for the public - society at large - to see that there is a diverse judiciary it is also important for the profession.

"In my own case it never occurred to me to aspire to be a judge because I didn't see anybody like me on the bench. And I think that's true today as well."

To be fair, judges need to be lawyers of long experience, and it will take some time for the increasing numbers of women and minority ethnic solicitors and barristers to accumulate the necessary years.

But that excuse is starting to wear a bit thin. There are plenty of experienced women and Asian and Afro-Caribbean lawyers practising these days. Around one in 10 of all solicitors and barristers are from an ethnic minority. Around one in three are women.

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