The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has rejected the idea of diversity targets for the judiciary and magistracy in its response to the Lammy review of the treatment of black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the criminal justice system.
The MoJ promised to investigate options put forward by Labour MP David Lammy to tackle the high number of BAME defendants pleading not guilty, such as providing a choice of duty solicitor, but these would be subject to a “cost-benefit analysis”.
The barrister and former Labour justice minister made 35 recommendations in his review, which was published in September.
Judicial diversity targets have been a longstanding demand of campaigners, but the MoJ said they were not the right approach.
“The requirement for judges to be qualified lawyers with many years’ legal experience, who are appointed on merit, means that many lawyers apply for judicial office later in their legal careers, resulting in an applicant pool that is less diverse than society as a whole.
“Judges taking up office now will typically be drawn from the peer group of lawyers who entered the professions around 20 years ago. In recent years, there has been progress in achieving greater diversity in terms of both gender and ethnicity but it remains a complex picture and there is more to be done.”
Mr Lammy cited the example of the prison system, where the prison service has set a target of 14% of recruits being BAME by December 2020.
In his report, the MP highlighted a lack of trust by BAME defendants in their solicitors, which contributed to a situation where black and Asian men were more than one and a half times more likely to enter a not guilty plea, and risk higher sentences as a result.
Among the solutions suggested by the report were giving defendants a choice of duty solicitor, earlier advice from barristers and the use of community intermediaries.
The MoJ said the options required “further feasibility investigation and cost-benefit analysis”.
There was “scope to improve the legal support available to suspects in custody” and the government was “engaging with the Law Society and the Bar Council on how best to move forward”.
The MoJ said it was also “observing with interest” the development of the Digital Rights Project, a prototype app that explains legal rights, pioneered by the University of Nottingham.
Mr Lammy’s recommendation that the Court Service create an online feedback system on the conduct of cases by judges was rejected by the MoJ, partly because it might be “used as a vehicle for dissatisfied parties” to complain about decisions.
The MoJ said it had already adopted several of the review’s recommendations, such as publishing data that had never been released before on the criminal justice system, including a breakdown by ethnicity of Parole Board hearing outcomes and the educational background of offenders.
“Academics, campaigners and think-tanks will have an open invitation to scrutinise data on race bias. Where the MoJ cannot explain discrepancies in the way different groups are treated, it will make reforms to address them.
“Where a recommendation in the Lammy review cannot be implemented in full or exactly as recommended, further work will be carried out and an alternative approach will be found that achieves the same aim.”
The MoJ said it was setting up a Race and Ethnicity Board, made up of senior officials, which would monitor progress on implementing the Lammy recommendations and the “wider agenda of race disparity”.
Mr Lammy welcomed the “cross-party consensus” on the need for concerted action to address disproportionality and bias in the justice system, but expressed disappointment that the government would not commit to targets on judicial diversity.
“I found that the lack of diversity within our judiciary and magistracy has a significant effect on the trust deficit that I found in Britain’s BAME communities in relation to how the justice system is perceived.
“My review demonstrated the lack of progress over the last decade in improving diversity amongst the judges that sit in our courts, and I am clear that more of the same will not work”.
Justice secretary David Lidington added: “This is the very first step in a change of attitude towards race disparity that will touch on every part of the criminal justice system for years to come.”