The old ‘tap on the shoulder’ system of appointing judges would have yielded better diversity for ethnic minority lawyers than the current system, Labour MP David Lammy has claimed.
There has been “woeful” progress in appointing judges from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to the senior bench under the current Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), Mr Lammy, the shadow Lord Chancellor, added.
He also described the situation where young people were encouraged to study law when they had “no realistic prospect” of gaining a pupillage and tenancy, or a training contract, as feeling “a bit like a scam”. The government should take an interest in this, he said.
A non-practising barrister and former justice minister who carried out a review of the criminal justice system in 2017, Mr Lammy repeated criticisms he made in 2019 that race and discrimination were the issues principally hindering ethnic minorities.
“Black people deserve to make their way up to the higher echelons of the profession… Black people are applying; we deserve a fair crack and are not getting it…
“Frankly we are seeing less diversity than we would have seen under the old system. If we had it, things would be better than they are now.”
In July, official figures showed that only 1% of judges were Black, a figure Mr Lammy described at the time as an “absolute scandal”.
Mr Lammy made the comments at an event hosted by discussion group The Forum on how best to “make progress and push for meaningful change for Black practitioners within the legal industry”.
The politician complained there was “a lot of passing the buck”. He explained: “When you ask the JAC who is responsible, they say ‘not me, speak to the Lord Chancellor’, [but] when you ask the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor says ‘not me, speak to the senior judiciary’.”
On the challenges of Black people entering the legal profession, he pledged a future Labour government would not force private chambers “to do anything”. However, he said league tables and accountability could help.
“I think embarrassment can be big factor. It can be very effective. [League tables] can be very effective in shaming chambers into action.”
He observed that there were areas of the Bar and City law firms that still felt like they were “100% white”. Changing this situation required leadership “at the top of chambers and among those who run the Bar Council”.
Mr Lammy said that, when conducting his review, it became clear there were barristers who “did not want to stick their heads above the parapet and cry ‘racism’” because it would negatively “affect their careers, their standing in chambers [or] relationships with clerks, and so on”.
He sympathised with the observation that Black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers in particular – because of their concentration in the publicly funded Bar – were prejudiced by rules that applications for criminal recorderships could be taken from practitioners without criminal law experience.
Yet this was not true of other senior posts and it meant commercial barristers were applying in significant numbers.
Offering advice to other Black lawyers, Mr Lammy suggested they should acquire mentors, but also “allies to be there on your behalf”. Law was a “tough business” and “a challenge”, but “this is where we are as a minority in a European context”.