Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, has called on the courts to learn lessons from the tribunal service in improving the diversity of judges.
She has also had a subtle dig at former colleague Lord Sumption’s infamous suggestion that it could take 50 years to achieve gender equality in the judiciary.
Last week, Sir Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals, described the tribunal judiciary as “arguably the most diverse in Europe”.
Speaking on a podcast for the First 100 Years project, Lady Hale said: “The good omen is that the tribunal judiciary is by and large roughly reflective of the gender and ethnic profile of people of that age in the working population.
“They’ve done that by encouraging people to put themselves forward and working out good ways of assessing potential.
“If the courts judiciary could do the same, we would make a lot more progress.”
Lady Hale said the problem for women in the law was no longer entry to the profession, where the figures were “hugely encouraging”.
Instead it was the “huge falling off” at certain levels of seniority or in women not going into independent practice at the Bar – the “visible embodiment” to many people of the legal profession.
She said solicitors at the big firms had to work round-the-clock to meet the demands of international clients while self-employed barristers had to be prepared to “drop everything and go anywhere”, particularly in the early years.
“It’s not easy to run a life like that. A lot of very clever women either drop out to have their families or they move sideways to work as in-house legal counsel or for the government legal service or for the public sector generally – all very good jobs.
“One of the things we can do to improve things for women is to encourage those not in independent practice at the Bar to think of themselves as judges and put themselves forward.”
Looking back on her career, Lady Hale said she had “probably benefited” from having a career at a time when “people thought we did not have enough women around”.
She said the Law Commission would have been “keen” to have her as their first female Law Commissioner and the judiciary would also have been keen to appoint her as a female High Court judge. As far as she was concerned, being a woman was “not a disadvantage”.
Lady Hale restated her opposition on the introduction of quotas for judicial appointments.
However, also on the podcast, Baroness Scotland, secretary-general of the Commonwealth and a former Attorney General, argued that with entry to the legal profession now 50:50, if you removed “improper bias and discrimination”, then the judiciary would be 50:50 too.
“The women we now have coming forward are as talented and committed as the men. I think it would be a good idea to have a target of 50:50. I think we’ve waited long enough.”
Project founder Dana Denis-Smith reiterated her support for quotas “for a limited period of time”, adding: “If we leave it to the profession, they just won’t do it.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Legal Action Group, Lady Hale said she would not predict how long it would take for true diversity within the judiciary to take hold, especially in terms of ethnic diversity, but added: “Except to say that at current rates of progress it should take less than the 50 years which have sometimes been predicted.”
The interview was published to mark the launch of the group’s children’s book,