Bar Council warns of threat to judiciary from lack of diversity among QCs

Sam Mercer

Mercer: female and ethnic minority barristers hit harder by cuts

The senior judiciary “may not reflect the communities it seeks to serve” because of a lack of ethnic minority and female QCs, the Bar Council has warned.

In the latest round of QC appointments, announced on Monday, less than a third (28%) of ethnic minority barristers who applied for silk were successful, compared to 43% of men and 52% of women.

Although women were more likely to succeed than men, the proportion of female QCs remains at just over 20%.

Sam Mercer, head of equality and diversity at the Bar Council, said: “We must find out why it is that ethnic minority barristers are less likely to succeed, and we need to work harder to get more women to apply.

“For ethnic minority barristers it is vital that we keep every stage of the QC appointments process under close scrutiny to ensure that all potential for bias is eradicated and that we are doing everything we can to encourage under-represented groups to apply.”

Ms Mercer went on: “A very real concern is how these trends will impact the future of judicial appointments. As most of the higher-ranking judges are also Queen’s Counsel, these figures tell us that tomorrow’s senior judiciary may not reflect the communities it seeks to serve.

“We know that women and ethnic minority barristers have been hit relatively harder by cuts to publicly funded areas of law and that additional economic pressures faced by women and the challenges faced by ethnic minorities mean they are less well represented, particularly at the top end of the profession.”

Last year’s figures for ethnic minority barristers were much better, with a success rate of over 42%. A similar number of women were appointed QC, 25, though the number who applied was slightly lower.

Congratulating the new silks this week, Helen Pitcher, chairman of the QC selection panel, said: “We remain concerned that the number of female applicants remains stubbornly low, but I am pleased that of those women who did apply, 52% were successful. While I was pleased to note a rise in BAME applicants to 14% of applications, it is disappointing that the success rate for BAME applicants was lower than that for applicants as a whole.”

In a separate development, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) launched a survey this week to help it understand women’s experiences of the equality rules in the BSB Handbook, introduced in 2012.

Dr Vanessa Davies, director-general of the BSB, said: “I don’t think any of us should be prepared to tolerate a situation where half of those called to the Bar are female, but women then leave the profession to an extent that they become outnumbered two to one later on.

“It’s in the public interest that regulation encourages a diverse profession and contributes to the ongoing efforts to address gender inequality at the Bar.

“This matters, not least because our judges are recruited largely from the ranks of experienced barristers and we will not achieve the diversity in the judiciary that a fair society demands if we don’t deal with gender inequality at the Bar.

“We took important steps when we introduced our equality rules, but we now need to understand more about how those rules and the associated polices are working.”


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