Age limit removed to allow judges in their 20s

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The Independent Online

The first judges to be appointed while they are still in their twenties could join the bench by the end of the year.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, will announce today that the minimum age requirement for the judiciary is to be abolished. This is aimed partly at making the judiciary more representative by encouraging applications from women and ethnic minority candidates. It will also answer criticism that the senior judiciary is perceived as out of touch because its elderly membership does not reflect society.

Lord Irvine will say: "These changes form part of my general strategy to remove unnecessary restrictions in the judicial appointments system and to promote diversity and equality of opportunity for judicial appointments."

Barristers and solicitors will be able to apply to join the junior ranks of the judiciary after they have had between seven and 10 years' experience as a lawyer. Some could apply to the bench before they reach their 30th birthday.

The general age restriction for entry to the judiciary has previously been 35.

"Lower age limits," Lord Irvine will say, "were put in place to reflect the fact that those appointed must have the necessary experience and maturity to fulfil the weighty and demanding burdens of judicial office in a way which ensures public confidence."

But he says he believes these aims will still be supported by lawyers who have seven to 10 years' experience, or less "in a few cases".

There are still no women judges in the House of Lords and only six out of 105 High Court posts are taken by women. There are also no black or Asian High Court judges and only seven of the 604 circuit judges are from an ethnic minority.

Last year Lord Irvine wrote in the annual report of the judiciary: "I know that there remains a perception of judges being old, white, male former barristers. I am the first to admit that we need to increase diversity on the Bench but this report shows how things are changing. In 2000/2001 28.4 per cent of judicial appointees were women and nearly 7 per cent were of ethnic minority origin. These are encouraging figures and compare favourably with the proportions of women and ethnic minority practitioners in the field for appointment."

To deflect criticisms of ageism the Government is also abolishing the current upper age limits for those who wish to apply for professional judicial office.

¿ Changes in the Race Relations Act are needed to remove the "legal straitjacket" preventing political parties selecting more ethnic minority candidates, the Institute for Public Policy Research said yesterday. Just 1.8 per cent of MPs came from the black and Asian communities and there were only 2.5 per cent ethnic minority councillors.