Governments value money, not service

Governments value money, not service


Issues with diversity in law are primarily the fault of our politicians, says Kerry Underwood

Diversity in the legal profession, or rather the lack of it, is again in the news after the new Lord Chancellor singled out the makeup of the UK’s highest court.

‘Can it be right that out of 12 judges in the Supreme Court only one is a woman and not a single one is from an ethic minority?’ said Liz Truss in her speech to the Conservative party conference on 4 October 2016 (SJ160/38). But would more women or black judges make any difference? Does having people who look different but think the same achieve true diversity?

In a previous article for SJ, ‘Needed: Class Act’ dated 1 July 2005, I wrote: ‘Replacing white public school men with white public school women or black public school men and women may be an improvement, but it achieves nothing in terms of true diversity in the legal profession.’

I was born and brought up in a council house and all of my education was paid for by the state. I did not attend university. When I qualified as a solicitor I had nothing, but I owed nothing either. From my background I doubt very much I would have incurred the massive debts now needed to qualify.

Student loans undoubtedly deter people from ordinary backgrounds and are a greater brake on diversity than anything else. Those who do get through will, understandably, seek a highly paid training contract in the City to pay off debt. City firms do not encourage their lawyers to become judges.

Like many of my generation I chose to do my articles – five years – in a legal aid firm. Faced with £75,000 worth of debt, would I have made the same decision? A report from the Legal Services Board in July 2016 on changes in the market states the government’s own research shows that the professions, including law, are becoming more, not less, socially exclusive.

It is the judiciary – appointed by the government – where the real problems lie. Women and ethnic minority representation is increasing but the truly shocking statistic is that, in 2015, the proportion of High Court and Court of Appeal judges who were privately educated was 74 per cent, almost unchanged in 26 years from 76 per cent in 1989.

By comparison 34 per cent of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies were privately educated.

Judicial office involves public service and often a pay cut. Governments of all persuasions have, for a generation, attacked the public sector, be it teachers, doctors, police, local authority workers, or legal aid lawyers.

They have valued money, not service, profit not professionalism, consumerism and not society. The part-time judiciary is discouraged. The pressure is to become full time or get out. I know. I did. It hardly attracts women or men with childcare responsibilities.

As with so much else in relation to the legal profession and the judiciary, this is an attack by politicians who are responsible for the problem in the first place. Specifically, the new Lord Chancellor is the only person who has any real power to change the composition of the judiciary. As for my firm? 40 per cent of our lawyers are white male, 40 per cent ethnic minority, and 20 per cent women. Moreover, 60 per cent of our senior management are women. However, the most important statistic is 100 per cent the best people for the job.

Kerry Underwood is senior partner at Underwoods Solicitors