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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Here comes the judge

I wonder what image you get when you think about a judge.

I bet you picture and elderly man with bifocals looking down his nose at defendants. He is probably public school and Oxbridge educated. It is very unlikely that he has any knowledge or understanding of modern culture. Remember the judge who did not know who Gazza was? And there was the famous incident in 1998 when a Judge in a libel trial famously asked - ''What is Linford Christie's lunchbox?''

 The classic description is pale, male and stale..

Is this a fair image? It certainly was in the past. The judiciary have, in fairness, worked hard to appoint judges from a wider background. Indeed I know many judges who are computer literate, socially aware and know exactly who Gazza was!

But there is still work to do. This has been particularly so in relation to the appointment of women and lawyers from ethnic minority groups. In statistics recently published by the Judicial Appointments Commission the number of women applicants recommended for appointment went up from 40% to 56%. That is good news and reflects the fact that the number of women becoming lawyers has caught up with and could soon surpass the number of men. Sadly the number of those from ethnic minorities has decreased from 50% of applicants to just 36%.

A fair judicial system has to be representative of the whole of society so this is a disappointment.

But some comments from senior judges do not help. Retired judge Lady Butler-Sloss recently questioned the emphasis on diversity suggesting that it was important to ensure that women from ethnic minority groups - ‘ who may not be able to bear the strain of the judicial process are not placed in a position where they may find themselves failing because there has been too much enthusiasm for diversity and not enough for merit.’

So does this mean that there have been no male, pale and stale judges who were not up to the job? If a candidate has sufficient experience and ability to apply for a judicial position then they should not be discouraged by a suggestion that they may not be good enough. The need to widen the experience on the bench is paramount.

We need a judiciary that is fully representative, in tune with society and also able to perform a highly pressurised job. Let’s hope that applicants from across society feel able to apply and to be welcomed.

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