Tearing up the rule book

Britain's judiciary is still overwhelmingly white, male and middle class. Now the CPS has devised a novel way to change all that, reports Robert Verkaik
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Seven years after Lord Irvine of Lairg first exhorted women to come forward to swell the ranks of the judiciary the statistics remain depressingly familiar.

On the benches of the two most important courts in the country sit just three female judges. More disappointing, still not a single Law Lord or a Lord Justice of Appeal comes from an ethnic minority background.

The next tier down, the High Court, confirms a picture of a judiciary dominated by white, middle class, public school-educated men. For more than 20 years successive lord chancellors have argued that in time the judiciary will change to reflect the influx of women and black and Asian lawyers joining the legal profession at the entry level. But this long-heralded army of new recruits has not materialised. Earlier this month David Lammy, minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, became the first member of the government to acknowledge that the passage of time alone would not lead to a more representative profession.

At a meeting of the Society of Black Lawyers he questioned whether his own government could "dismantle barriers" to a more diverse and representative judiciary and legal profession. He said: "It is truly astonishing that in the 21st Century, in a country as proudly diverse as Britain, there are no black High Court judges. No black Justices of Appeal. No black heads of division. No black Law Lords. In fact, no black representation in the upper reaches of the judiciary whatsoever."

While tip-toeing around the politically sensitive issue of quotas and targets for female and black judges, Lammy indicated that new ideas were needed to tackle an intractable problem. "We don't just want to help people jump over the obstacles that exist," said Lammy. "We want to remove those barriers entirely."

On the same day Lammy was signalling a new approach to judicial appointments a group of people from very different social backgrounds to most judges took a step closer to joining the bench. The 47 are part of the Law Scholarship Scheme sponsored by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Known colloquially as "from the filing cabinet to the bench" the programme widens the pool from which the judiciary is chosen by extending opportunities to higher education to those who have no post-school qualifications. This ground-breaking and novel route to top jobs in the law has very powerful sponsors, including the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Ken Macdonald QC and the prime minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC.

All three were in London to celebrate the achievements of the first tranche of "graduates" from the new scheme. Significantly, around 75 per cent of the scholars are women, and at least 20 per cent are from black and ethnic minorities. In London, these figures rise to 80 per cent and 46 per cent. One of these first 47 is Patricia Ashford, a mother of two who left school with 7 O-levels and ended up working for Marks and Spencer. She became interested in the law by chance while serving on a jury in Cardiff in 1995. "I just got a taste for law. I am very self-motivated and discovered late in life what I really wanted to do and was good at. I decided that criminal law was the area in which I wanted to work."

Ashford, 37, began studying for a GCSE in law and sociology in 1996 "to check whether it was being in the court or whether I actually enjoyed law." When she found she was hooked on the criminal legal process she signed up to do an A-level in sociology and a paralegal qualification which she completed in 1998. "I made the move into legal work in 2000 by securing a position as a trainee legal executive with a firm of solicitors. I knew I did not want to work in contracts forever so I bit the bullet and took a pay cut and came to the CPS in January 2003."

In 1999 she finally qualified as a legal executive. Now, she says, she hopes to use the scheme to become a fully qualified solicitor. Maxine Cole, 36, is another scholar who has used the scheme to find a non-traditional route into further education. After graduating in law in the mid 1990s Cole went on to complete the Legal Practice Course in 2001, while still working full-time for the National Probation Service.

In November 2002 she secured a solicitor's training contract with the CPS. "I commenced my contract in January 2003 and took four months off to have a baby. The CPS was very flexible and accommodating of this and when I told them that I was pregnant they did not see it as an obstacle to starting or indeed completing the contract."

In April 2004 she secured a crown prosecutor's position and is now based in east London, working for Barking and Newham criminal justice unit. Cole hopes she can go on to become a higher courts advocate and conduct trials in the crown court. Both women were personally congratulated by Cherie Booth. She told them: "Many of you have had to give up a lot to study. It takes great courage to go home after work and not collapse in front of the TV with the family but get on with your study. It's not easy doing it on a budget especially if you did not have the luxury of going to university to study full time and have a bit of fun."

She reminded the scholars that law "must not be left to the middle classes but reflect our multi-cultural society. Otherwise public respect for the law will be undermined. And that is why this scheme is so important." Harriet Harman, who launched the scholarship scheme at a Downing Street reception last year, said the programme gives people who have missed out early on in their education the chance to fulfil their potential. "We all moan about the white, middle class, public school backgrounds of the judiciary but here's a way of diversifying the legal profession from the bottom up."

The DPP, Ken Macdonald, committed the CPS to doing its part to widen the pool from where judges are appointed. He promised: "We have no barriers and no glass ceiling. We are not the slightest bit interested in someone's background because it's not where you come from but where you are going."

Harman said the real proof of the scheme's success would be the "first crown court judge sitting in Liverpool with a strong Merseyside accent."