JUSTICE Conference: Diverse Professions, Diverse Judges?

1st March 2018

On 27th February, JUSTICE hosted a conference on ‘Diverse Professions, Diverse Judges?’, with the support of Norton Rose Fullbright, to discuss diversity, and explore why the judiciary and legal professions were struggling with diversity, especially at senior levels.

Currently, 37% of the practising Bar are women and 13% are BAME individuals, but there is a high rate of attrition for women. In 2017 women made up just over 30% of barristers over 15 years’ call, and just 15% of QCs are women, meaning that on current trends a 50:50 gender balance among all practising barristers is unlikely to ever be achieved. Socioeconomic diversity is limited as well; in 2016 the Sutton Trust recorded that 71% of barristers attended fee-paying schools relative to 7% in the general population.

There is nearly gender parity amongst solicitors now, but there is less diversity at senior level – 33% of partners are women, and in 2016 women were just 21% of partners at Magic Circle firms. The proportion of BAME partners at larger firms (50+ partners) is only 8%.

The JUSTICE conference opened with a panel on the ‘expectations and prospects’ of the next generation, with junior practitioners sharing their perspectives on diversity. While the panel agreed that recruitment processes were “a lot better than they were before” there was still a long way to go. The main problem identified was unconscious bias. Two of the barristers on the panel shared their shocking experiences of being mistaken as the defendant in court, both by a judge and by court staff. Michael Etienne, a trainee barrister at Matrix Chambers spoke eloquently of the need to include everyone in the diversity conversation, and Natalie Osafo, an Associate at Slaughter and May also said that there needed to be “transparent accessibility” and role models for everyone.

The main panel, ‘Dealing with the diversity deficit: obstacles, opportunities and levers for change’ brought together practitioners across the sector to discuss the problems of how to attract diverse talent, retain women and underrepresented groups, and support a diverse judicial pipeline. Most agreed that the judiciary needed to be appointed from a broader pool. Quotas and were also discussed but there was disagreement over their efficacy. The problem of attrition rates for women was in part blamed on the problematic allocation of work in Chambers, and the limited option of working flexible hours. For this culture to change there needed to be greater transparency and accountability.

In contrast, Millicent Grant, President of CILEx described how Chartered Legal Executives are very diverse, but there needs to be more mentoring and training to encourage them to apply to judicial positions.

A breakout session on ‘Inclusive Courts’ resulted in a heated debate on the potential consequences of flexible operating hours in courts. Would longer hours have an adverse impact on female barristers who already feel under pressure? Regardless, online courts were viewed as a positive step to making courts more accessible and transparent.

The final panel of the day, ‘Diverse professions, a diverse bench’ focused on the need for action if things are going to change. Diversity matters, because it would improve the quality of judiciary, and the judiciary needs to be representative of the society it serves. Dame Linda Dobbs spoke of the need a wider pool of applicants, and for more solicitors to apply to the judiciary. Sa’ad Hossein QC said less well-represented applicants perhaps lacked confidence, and that mentoring programmes could improve this.

The JUSTICE conference proved an informative and enlightening afternoon, filled with fascinating discussions on the issues preventing diversity in the legal professions and judiciary. Despite the challenges, the mood was optimistic, and imaginative proposals for the future meant the conference ended on a hopeful note.