Tackling deep-seated bias in the profession
Professor Chris Bones examines whether CILEX lawyers are treated fairly at work
The law, like many other parts of the British establishment, is facing increasing scrutiny over a lack of diversity in its ranks. It is one of the few sectors where leaders are still predominantly from a private school background, with two-thirds of senior judges and over 50 per cent of partners in firms regulated by the SRA privately educated, according to a Sutton Trust report. Clearly the legal profession needs to change just as much – and perhaps more than other industry sectors.
CILEX has long argued for a justice system and legal services sector more representative of the society its serves, with lawyers and judiciary who bring a diversity of life experiences to their roles. That means challenging the existing and deep-seated cultural biases in legal services against those from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Equality, diversity and inclusion
Equality, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of CILEX’s being, arguably more so than any of the frontline legal bodies – for nearly 60 years, offering a unique ‘earn while you learn’ route to becoming a qualified lawyer for those without university degrees.
This is reflected in our 20,000-strong membership, which is dramatically different from solicitors and barristers: 76 per cent of our lawyers are women, 16 per cent identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, 85 per cent attended state schools, only 3 per cent have a parent who is a lawyer – and of those who attended university, 52 per cent said they were the first in their family to do so.
Though some graduates choose to pursue a legal career through CILEX, many of our members are a testament to the talent the law would otherwise have missed out on.
Disrespectful and discriminatory
Last year, a survey of over 2000 CILEX members found they faced discrimination and a lack of respect from employers, despite their qualifications and experience. Poor behaviours and employment practices were experienced by far too many members, the majority of whom come from socio-economic backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the profession.
This is an awful indictment of the culture of many firms, demonstrating attitudes among some solicitors that are disrespectful to those who they do not believe to be their equals. Many of our members effectively work in a hostile environment.
This needs to be addressed urgently and we are working to improve the employment experience of members. Alongside the other legal professional bodies, we want to ensure we root out bias and discrimination wherever it exists. The law should provide a workplace environment that is qualification-route blind, which nurtures, develops and rewards equally for work of equal value.
CILEX members have an important role to play in broadening access to justice. Recognition of their equal training and standing will, in turn, lead to greater access to legal services and enhance consumer choice.
We need reform, and it is welcome that, following an extensive campaign, government, opposition party and Judicial Office support has been secured to address the remaining legislative, regulatory and policy barriers preventing CILEX members from participating fully in in all aspects of the justice system.
That includes the Ministry of Justice accepting our arguments about the need to reform the Powers of Attorney Act 1971, under which a copy of a power of attorney can only be certified by either the donor, a solicitor, a notary or a stockbroker. A Private Members’ Bill has been accepted, which will allow CILEX members this right.
We have also seen the Lord Chancellor committing to proposals to enable CILEX professionals to become duty solicitors in their own right– a key recommendation resulting from the Bellamy Review on Criminal Legal Aid.
Regulation of CILEX professionals
Against this backdrop CILEX is also in formal talks with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to explore a possible proposal to transfer the regulation of CILEX members.
The aim is to ensure the regulation of CILEX members continues to be both independent and financially sustainable.
Over the last 15 years the status of CILEX professionals has been raised, allowing them to become partners, set up their own firms, and gain independent practice rights. Last year saw the launch of a new route to qualification which, for the first time, integrates practice rights.
CILEX has come a long way –and our members, who form a vital part of the legal services industry, deserve the respect and career opportunities afforded to their solicitor counterparts. They need proper recognition for the specialised route they take to qualification, and, by ensuring they able to fully participate in our justice system, we will improve the diversity of the sector, helping to break down the deep-seated bias which still exists.