Don't promote women and ethnic minorities in the courtroom just to fill quotas, says former top British female judge

Women and ethnic minority judges who are not up to the job have been appointed because of diversity targets, a former High Court judge has warned.

Baroness Butler-Sloss, formerly the most senior woman judge in England and Wales, said that there had been ‘too much enthusiasm for diversity and not enough for merit’ in the appointment process. As a result, judges had found themselves ‘failing’ because they were ‘not able to bear the strain of the judicial process’, she said.

She told the House of Lords: ‘I have a vivid recollection of a woman judge many years ago who was a very fine pianist. She should have remained a pianist.

‘I strongly support diversity when - and only when - it equals merit,’ she said.

She added: ‘It will be very important that women - particularly those from ethnic minorities - who may not be able to bear the strain of the judicial process are not placed in a position where they may find themselves failing because there has been too much enthusiasm for diversity and not enough for merit. This is very important.’

Lady Butler-Sloss, who was head of the Family Division of the High Court and the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, made her comments in a House of Lords debate on plans to encourage more women and ethnic minority candidates to become judges.

Measures in the Crime and Courts Bill would extend flexible work hours for senior judges to help women to continue to sit on cases after they have children.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is also proposing ‘positive action’ in the appointment of judges - so that if there are equal candidates, the woman can be chosen in the interests of ‘diversity’.

Responding to Lady Butler-Sloss, cross bench peer Lady Neuberger, the former chief executive of the King’s Fund, welcomed plans for non-judges to chair selection panels for senior judicial appointments.

She said the new measures ‘should not and would not change the overriding principle of appointments based on merit’.But she worried that existing judges were appointing too many people who were similar to them. She said: ‘We all have an inclination to appoint people who are like us’.

‘I certainly found as chief executive of the King’s Fund that an astonishingly large number of middle-class, white, rather bossy women were being appointed.’ ‘I cannot think why that should be,’ she quipped.

She added: ‘Let us be clear. We have a wonderful judiciary in this country. It is highly talented, highly independent, not always beloved of Government - nor should it be - and of great merit.

‘That is why, where the judiciary plays an even greater constitutional role than it did in the past, it is so important that the judges should not be always in the majority-or arguably ever in the majority-in appointing people to become part of their own number.’

Lady Neuberger, who chaired an advisory panel on judicial diversity under Labour, said there was a ‘real need for the judiciary to be more reflective of the community it serves’.

Around 14 per cent of judges in England and Wales are women and three per cent are from black and Asian groups.

Lady Butler-Sloss was appointed as the coroner in the inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed in 2006, but she stood down from the role the following year.


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