The Law: Irvine calls for more black judges

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The Lord Chancellor is announcing measures to encourage more blacks and Asians in the judiciary. He also promises to deal personally with any allegations of discrimination. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, says such an initiative is badly needed.

The bare statistics in Lord Irvine of Lairg's speech to ethnic minority lawyers this morning tell their own story. Only one per cent of circuit judges are not white, and 1.5 per cent of recorders. Among the senior ranks of the judiciary there are no black judges at all.

This morning at the Minority Lawyers Conference, Lord Irvine will announce plans to encourage more lawyers from the ethnic minorities to consider applying for careers as judges. One idea is a so-called "shadowing" scheme whereby young lawyers will be able to sit with experienced judges and gain an idea of the work involved.

Another proposal by the Lord Chancellor is for a "mentoring" scheme where judges would be asked to advise and guide junior colleagues in the part- time judiciary.

"I hope that increasing contact between serving judges and candidates for judicial office, especially from the ethnic minorities, will help to break down some of the barriers which are perceived to stand between the individual and the Bench," Lord Irvine says today.

One problem is the lack of black and Asian lawyers among the more senior barristers - from where most judges are drawn. Only 1 per cent of barristers who have been qualified for more than 15 years are from ethnic minorities. The good news, says Lord Irvine, is that this figure rises to 8.3 per cent among barristers with five to ten years experience.

He also reveals that he has instructed civil servants to provide more help for anyone considering a career as a judge. He will tell the lawyers: "I encourage you to use them. I will not be scattering promotions around like confetti - appointments must be made on merit," he says. "But I am determined to break down any culture of not applying because `they'd never have the likes of me'." Lord Irvine also makes a personal promise to investigate any discrimination and invites people to write to him. "I undertake to look at the case personally and provide you with a personal reply."

At the same time the Lord Chancellor is proposing a new system of on- the-job assessment for new part-time jobs by experienced so-called "Pupil Master" judges. The lack of such assessment is a weakness in the selection procedure of full-time judges, he believes.

His speech is likely to be welcomed by many who complain about the lack of black representation on judicial benches, though critics will point out that it will take more than a handful of measures from a Lord Chancellor to change the overwhelmingly white, middle-class and male ethos of the judiciary.

Lord Irvine says he will keep the present confidential consultation between officials and other judges on assessing likely talent for the bench.