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Judges: a diverse group?

Judges: a diverse group?

Juliet

27/07/2020

When you picture a judge, what do you think of? Ashamed though I am to admit it, the image that appears in my head is of an elderly, white man.

My perception that judges are overwhelmingly male is, it turns out, true only in some types of court. In April 2019 (the most recent date for which figures from the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary are available), 32% of court judges were women. However, that headline figure masks considerable variation: 42% of district judges in county courts (the lowest level of court for civil cases) were women, compared with just 27% of High Court judges and 23% of Court of Appeal judges. As in so many areas, gender diversity is improving, but less so in more senior roles.

Sadly, the situation with regards to racial equality is still worse. Just 7% of court judges were BAME in 2019, and just 1% were black.

The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary do not release data on age diversity. It is also less obvious that a lack of age diversity would necessarily be a problem; some would argue that young, inexperienced judges might find it more difficult to command respect than those with more experience of the legal profession. However, this doesn’t mean that age diversity in the judiciary isn’t an interesting area to consider.

To become a fee-paid judge (a person who sits as a judge for a limited number of days per year, but at least 15, and usually continues to practise as a lawyer the rest of the time), a candidate must have at least five years’ post-qualification experience as a lawyer or chartered legal executive. Then, if they want to become a more senior 'salaried' judge, for whom that is their only role, they must usually have spent at least two years, or 30 sitting days, as a fee-paid judge. In effect, this means that the judiciary is perhaps almost unique among professions, in that it is impossible for those younger than around 30 to enter.

There is a very obvious reason for this: experience as a lawyer is considered an essential prerequisite for becoming a judge. However, it is not a prerequisite for becoming a magistrate. In fact, magistrates can in theory be as young as 18, and do not need any prior knowledge of the law. Yet in practice, the 2019 Judicial Diversity Statistics reveal that just 5% of magistrates were under 40, whereas 52% were over 60.

It is surely important that the judiciary reflects the communities they serve. With this in mind, though age diversity can realistically perhaps only be improved amongst magistrates, increasing gender diversity and especially BAME representation amongst judges must surely be a priority. People with disabilities, and from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds, are also underrepresented, though data on this is lacking.