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Senior Judiciary: Women

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of women in the senior judiciary; and what steps they are taking to increase that number.

My Lords, the Judicial Office produces and assesses annual statistics on the diversity of the judiciary, including gender diversity. The last publication was in April 2013 and the next one is due shortly. The Government are committed to playing their part in increasing judicial diversity, which includes the number of female senior judiciary. We introduced measures in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 to increase judicial diversity, including the equal merit provision and salaried part-time working.

I thank my noble friend. Although the Government should not interfere with judicial independence, there is public interest in the judiciary’s composition, which the Government have a responsibility to monitor. Given the lack of women in the senior judiciary, will the Government encourage a fresh look at the criteria for those roles to ensure that the competitions, for some of them at least, attach weight to the distinct qualifications and experience that women candidates have and take account of the different ways of operating and career paths of these women compared with the men against whom they are being assessed?

This is a difficult problem and the more that I have read about it the more difficult I think it is. It was much debated during the passage of the 2013 Act. The Government are doing their best to encourage diversity but the problem probably starts much earlier, in the structure of the relative professions. The number of women applicants for High Court positions is, sadly, still relatively low. That is less the case in the lower judiciary. The position is that there is one woman in the Supreme Court, and 19 out of 108 High Court judges are women, as are seven out of 38 Lords Justices in the Court of Appeal. This is a regrettable state of affairs and, clearly, we hope that things change.

My Lords, I declare a paternal interest since my daughter sits as a part-time district judge. Given the high proportion of women among criminal and family law practitioners in particular, will the Government rethink the position that they set out in their response to the Transforming Legal Aid consultation in which, in relation to the need to promote diversity, they said that even if the reform of legal aid were,

“to make the attainment of the objectives more difficult, we consider that the changes are necessary and justified”?

Will the Government accept that they have a responsibility in this area, rather than simply asserting, as they did in the same response, that for underrepresented groups like women and BME aspirants, the primary responsibility is that of the Bar and the solicitors’ profession?

I agree with the noble Lord that the primary responsibility is for the professions: the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The question of legal aid, we submit, is not the right instrument in order to encourage diversity. The provision of legal aid depends upon trying to target those most in need of legal aid in accordance with the available budget.

My Lords, how many women have applied over the past 10 years for senior judicial appointments—that is to say, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, the Supreme Court and the heads of division—and how many were appointed?

My Lords, currently we do not disclose details of the number of applicants for the Supreme Court or the heads of division. There is a very limited pool from which applications can be made, and therefore it is thought that the publication of this information could lead to speculation about the identity of candidates and possibly discourage applicants. I can say, however, that in the High Court 81 applications were received in 2013 of which 17% were appointed.

My Lords, I wonder whether, as a former woman judge, I might add something. I agree with what the Minister said about the problem being further down, but I wonder whether the Government might look at women who leave the professions, both the Bar and solicitors, because of the stresses of family life, who ought to be encouraged back several years later but will require some training? Nowadays, it is of course possible to go up the ladder, as indeed I did—my husband called it a hawsepipe—to go from a fairly junior position through to the High Court and even higher. You need to get the women back who have left because they have skills that are underused.

The noble and learned Baroness is of course right. That is probably a significant reason why more are not applying for the higher judiciary. There is flexible part-time working as a result of the 2013 Act, and I think that more people should be encouraged to sit part-time earlier in their career in order to develop the career pattern that will then make them more inclined to apply, and of course it is important that women who otherwise might not apply do so. I entirely accept that. It is something that the sub-committee on diversity and the judicial diversity task force, which are both concerned with this, are looking at very carefully.

My Lords, has the Minister undertaken any analysis of those who have applied but who have not succeeded? Is there any support for any such applicants to make them better able to make a successful application on the next occasion?

I think I have already given the answer regarding the percentage of applicants to the High Court Bench. One of the ways of fulfilling what the noble and learned Baroness has said is the system of mentoring. This is one of the suggestions being considered by the judicial diversity task force. The Lord Chief Justice is particularly keen to encourage diversity, and I know that the suggestion that the noble and learned Baroness makes is one that is very much on his mind.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the progress of women at senior levels of the judiciary has been slow because what constitutes “merit” is defined predominantly by men in the senior judiciary and then assessed by panels that are predominantly made up of men?

As the inaugural chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission, the noble Baroness speaks with great authority. I entirely accept that the definition of merit is somewhat elusive, particularly equal merit. Whether you decide that there is clear water, as Lord Sumption said in his lecture on the subject, between all candidates or whether you say that there is equal merit between quite a number who have risen to the relevant level, it is then permissible to decide questions of diversity at that level in the appointment. Of course, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that there has been too much a question of men seeking to promote men of a similar type.