Leading Article: A move to correct the bias of solicitors

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The Independent Online
SOLICITORS tend to be conservative by temperament and do not like being pushed around by the profession's governing body, the Law Society. So it is not suprising that, as we report today, they should have reacted unfavourably to the society's proposed introduction of new policies to eliminate racial discrimination, especially at the recruitment level.

There is ample evidence of prejudice against black and Asian trainees and qualified solicitors (also of the reluctance of white solicitors to brief black barristers). Last October the society's legal practice directorate caused a stir by proposing targets to correct the effects of such long-standing, if probably largely unthinking, hostility.

It suggested that small firms with between six and 10 fee-earners should have at least one from an ethnic minority; that even smaller firms should also 'have regard to this policy'; and that firms with 11 fee-earners or more should have at least 10 per cent of trainees and 5 per cent of other fee-earners from minority ethnic groups (meaning those of African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian or Chinese origin). The target for trainees, of whom about 15 per cent tend to come from these groups, should be met by the end of 1995. It pointed out that the Bar had already adopted a blanket target of 5 per cent for ethnic minorities in all barristers' chambers.

One or two of the solicitors' submissions make sense: for example, that pressure against discrimination should be greater in areas where ethnic minorities are strongest, such as London and the Midlands. But their reactions as a whole suggest an inability at the human level to understand the unfairness of the current state of affairs or to appreciate the need for a profession involved in securing justice to conduct itself in a just manner. In that respect, solicitors are lagging well behind barristers. That may be because the Bar is a smaller, more centralised and more metropolitan body, whose members are independent and notionally self-employed.

It is thought likely that the Law Society will override its members' objections and insist they adopt its proposed rules of practice. It would be right to do so. Its 1988 'code of practice on the avoidance of racial and sexual discrimination' has proved ineffective. Something more mandatory is needed.

The adoption of quotas is not only undesirable, as it implies that less able candidates should be given preference on grounds of race, but unlawful. So ultimately there can be no sanctions against a firm that cannot be proved to have practised racial discrimination. But much can be achieved by the vigorous investigation of complaints, and regular monitoring of progress towards targets, with the implicit threat of adverse publicity. It is bad enough, as a minister from the Lord Chancellor's department complained yesterday, that some solicitors should often charge clients excessive fees. It is equally indefensible that they should be discriminating in their recruitment policies against those same ethnic minorities with whose members the police and magistrates tend to deal most harshly.

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