New judges still ruled by old school tie

THE LORD Chancellor's efforts to open up the judiciary to a wider cross-section of society are not working, according to a study published today that shows judges are still "overwhelmingly white, male, middle- class and elderly".

Of the 85 judges appointed or promoted since Labour came to power in May 1997 only seven have been women, while more than ever are from public school or Oxford and Cambridge University backgrounds.

The survey compiled by Labour Research, the independent trade union and labour movement organisation, found that 79 per cent of the new judges had been to public school compared with 69 per cent overall. Some 73 per cent had been to Oxbridge; 64 per cent of the total judiciary come from those universities.

Since Labour came to power, Eton College (annual fees pounds 13,410) provided two Court of Appeal, six High Court and twelve circuit judges. Winchester School (annual fees pounds 13,544) provided one Court of Appeal, eight High Court and five circuit judges. Only 8 per cent of the wider public went to public school.

Of the 692 judges in the UK only 45 are women. There are still no women judges in the House of Lords and only one in the Court of Appeal.

The survey found that ethnic minority lawyers have fared even worse than women lawyers with fewer than 1 per cent holding judicial office.

The authors conclude: "Little has changed in the two years since Labour came to power. The judges remain overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class and elderly."

While Labour has appointed judges who are five years younger (55) than the average age for judges overall (60) it has failed to make any dent in the average age of the most senior judges. The average age of a judge in the House of Lords is 66, with 10 being over the state pension age. Even among junior circuit judges the average age has actually gone up slightly from 59 to 60. Labour Research said that one of Labour's election pledges was to modernise the judiciary to equip it to deal with its role in the next century. The authors said this was particularly important in view of the new powers the judges will gain in the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The survey's findings will be disappointing for the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who launched a programme this March to make judicial appointments fairer. These included a "transfer of resources to ensure officials are able to dedicate more time to developing equal opportunities policies". Other changes included arranging for lay members to be involved in the initial shortlisting of candidates as well as in the interviews themselves. High Court posts have also been advertised in the national and trade press.

Lord Irvine said: "The appointment of judges has always been considered one of the most important responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. One of my priorities is to modernise the appointments process. I am committed to creating an open, effective and accessible system where everyone who is eligible for appointment and who wants appointment shall have a fair chance to secure it."

Since then Lord Irvine has announced a new programme, that allows lawyers to spend a day "shadowing" members of the judiciary to get a better insight into a judge's role.

Lord Irvine said: "This is an exciting and challenging time for the judiciary, with the changes brought about by civil justice reforms and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into United Kingdom law. I therefore want all eligible practitioners to have the confidence to apply."

He added: "Appointments must and will be made on merit - irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, religion or disability.

"These are not mere words. They are firm principles. I will not tolerate any form of discrimination."

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