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Judges to be asked about voluntary work

24 February 2010

People applying for judicial posts should be asked about voluntary work, Baroness Neuberger, chair of the Lord Chancellor’s advisory panel on judicial diversity, has said.

Launching the panel’s final report today, Baroness Neuberger said candidates should be “asked about and probed more deeply on” whether they had done voluntary work or worked for a legal charity. She said “an awful lot of judges” already had this experience.

The panel recommends that the Judicial Appointments Commission rewrites one of its criteria for assessing merit so that an “ability to understand and deal fairly” is replaced by a much more detailed test.

Candidates would need to show “an awareness and understanding, acquired by relevant experience, of the diversity of the communities which the courts serve” and a “commitment to public service, preferably demonstrated through experience”.

Baroness Neuberger said she hoped the report, which made 53 recommendations, would lead to a noticeably more diverse judiciary by 2020.

“It took Canada 20 years,” she said. “They’ve done very well on gender but not on ethnic diversity.”

Justice secretary and Lord Chancellor Jack Straw told the Commons today that a judicial diversity task force had been set up, including himself, the Lord Chief Justice, the chairman of the JAC, the senior president of tribunals and the heads of the Bar Council, the Law Society and ILEX.

Baroness Neuberger said a recommendation that an appraisal system should be set up for all judicial posts, a change which was supported particularly by women lawyers, had already been accepted.

“There aren’t the resources to create a gold-plated system, so we will probably end up with something more like stainless steel,” she said.

She said the report did not recommend diversity quotas or targets, because women and ethnic minority lawyers wanted to feel they had been appointed on merit.

However, the report said the JAC should make use of the Equality Bill “positive action” provisions, once they became law.

These provisions would allow diversity to “tip the balance” in favour of a candidate where two candidates were evenly matched.

Although these powers are only “permissive” regarding the judiciary, the panel recommended they apply to the judiciary and the JAC.

Baroness Neuberger said the old-fashioned “tap on the shoulder” which once told people they had got a job as a judge should be replaced by a tap on the shoulder meaning that female or ethnic minority candidates should apply.

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