Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, has said that “we should be ashamed of ourselves” if the court is not more diverse by the end of 2018.
Her comments come in the wake of a heated debate about women in the judiciary sparked by Lord Sumption’s comments that it may take 50 years to achieve equality, although she did not address his views directly.
In a speech at the University of Birmingham this afternoon, Lady Hale made it very clear that she expected women lawyers not to be put off applying to the most senior court, where retirements mean that there would “inevitably be” six vacancies between September 2016 and December 2018.
“It really bothers me that there are women, who know or ought to know that they are as good as the men around them, but who won’t apply for fear of being thought to be appointed just because they are a woman.
“We early women believed that we were as good as the men and would certainly not be put off in this way. I may well have been appointed because the powers that be realised the need for a woman.
“I am completely unembarrassed about that, because they were right, and I hope that I have justified their confidence in me.”
Lady Hale went on: “I don’t think that all the talk about the best women being deterred is a plot to put them off, but I am sure that they should not be deterred by talk such as this.
“We owe it to our sex, but also to the future of the law and the legal system, to step up to the plate.”
She volunteered to take the lead in ensuring there was “outreach work” to help encourage “the widest possible range of candidates” to consider applying for the vacancies.
“One possibility would be to establish an unofficial ‘search committee’, keeping an eye open for potential future candidates and giving them appropriate experience and encouragement so that they would be better placed to make an application when the opportunity arose.”
Referring a change brought in by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2013, which removed the deputy president from the Supreme Court selection commission, she said: “It occurs to me that this is something where the deputy president might take the lead, given that she is no longer on the commission itself.”
Lady Hale said the selection commission would have to decide what to do about the ‘equal merit’ provision in the Equality Act 2010, which allows the selection commission to prefer one candidate over another of equal merit if it increases diversity.
The deputy president suggested that the measure would be more powerful if it was applied at the shortlisting stage and not at the final selection stage, as the Judicial Appointments Committee had decided.
“I believe that anyone who is appointing the justices of the Supreme Court should be able to look at the body of justices as a whole and ask how they can collectively best serve the needs of the UK justice system.
“Excellence is important (though I am embarrassed to claim it). But so is diversity of expertise. And so is diversity of background and experience.”
Lord Hodge, another Supreme Court justice, said earlier this week that he did not agree with Lord Sumption, and that he would be “quite astonished” if, by the time he retired in eight years’ time, there was not a significant number of women on the Supreme Court bench.