A quota system should be introduced to address the under-representation of women and ethnic minority judges, a major independent report commissioned by the Labour Party has recommended.
The radical recommendations from leading human rights solicitor Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC and Matrix Chambers’ Karon Monaghan QC – who specialises in equality and discrimination law – are aimed at informing the policy of a future Labour government to improve judicial diversity.
Following six months of consultation with the profession, the report also recommended that all judicial posts should be available for part-time or job share unless the need for a full-time appointment can be justified, and that the circuit system be abolished and replaced with regional appointments.
Further, the ability of a candidate to contribute to a diverse judiciary should be taken into account when assessing merit and there should be greater progress towards the concept of a judicial career in which promotion can take place from the lower levels of the judiciary to the High Court.
The report said part-time salaried judges should be allowed to continue in practice subject to rules on conflicts of interest, while retired judges should be able to return to practice.
It also called for a widening of the pool of candidates to include legal academics, and to remove restrictions on the posts for which chartered legal executives can apply unless they can be “strictly justified”.
The authors recognised that quotas would be controversial, but said the advantages outweighed any disadvantages. They pointed to quotas in other areas of public life – such as all-women shortlists for Parliament – and indeed that the Supreme Court has a de facto quota already by requiring at least one judge each from Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Belgium has recently introduced requirements on the number of women in its Constitutional Court, while gender quotas are often used in international tribunals, they said.
“The most compelling argument for quotas is that they work and they work quickly,” they said, adding that EU law is unlikely to prohibit a “proportionate” quota system. “It is entirely possible to introduce a quota system while maintaining a commitment to the highest standards in the judiciary.”
Sir Geoffrey said: “The law cannot command respect if those who administer it do not reflect a diverse population. The senior judiciary is dominated by white males selected from a narrow pool of candidates. It is widely agreed that the efforts so far made to change this and achieve a fair balance of women and ethnic minorities at this level have not been effective. We hope the work we have done and our recommendations will help to make a difference.”
Ms Monaghan added: “Given the slow rate of progress towards a diverse judiciary, firmer measures are now required, including quotas.”
The Labour Party will now consider in detail the recommendations. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the report is “a contribution in its own right to the work on judicial diversity”.
He added: “I will be responding, and hope that after May 2015 a Labour government will be in a position to put into practice policies that will deliver a more diverse judiciary.”
Last week, the Black Solicitors Network warned that law firms and chambers need to accelerate the increase in workforce diversity if they are to ward off the “nuclear” option of quotas being imposed, while in July, the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, said there was a strong “business case” for diversity.