Simon Hughes, the new Justice minister, as announced efforts to boost the number of women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds who become barristers. Hughes suggested that the profession is still very much dominated by white men, and that sections of the country may perceive it to be hostile as a result.
Hughes also encouraged younger people from low-income families to aspire towards a career in the law. He suggested they take inspiration from great lawyers such as Nelson Mandela, and said that there could soon be financial support for those from poorer backgrounds trying to establish themselves in a legal career.
England and Wales is currently home to 148 senior-level judges, but at present only five of these belong to an ethnic minority group. There are also 12 justices of the Supreme Court, of which only one is a woman.
Furthermore, a third of pupil barristers are Oxbridge graduates, according to the most up-to-date figures available. Perhaps surprisingly, this proportion is on the rise.
Summing up his point, Hughes said that “We still have a legal profession which is significantly dominated by white, middle-aged men.” He went on to add that “There are almost no women at the top end of the judicial system and very little ethnic diversity throughout the judicial system.”
He believes that this means the legal profession is a poor representation of modern Britain, lacking the diversity found in British society as a whole. He also said that greater diversity would show that the law in the UK is “equal for everybody and open to everybody and doesn’t institutionally discriminate.”
However, Mr Hughes – himself trained as a barrister – said that he could tell there was a “willingness to change” within the profession. “It would be overstating it to say the profession is in crisis,” he elaborated, “but I think they understand they do not command the public confidence they should.” Acknowledging that a complete transformation cannot be achieved instantly, Hughes said that he hopes to see some measurable level of change within two years.
Since taking up his post recently, Hughes has also issued statements of his intention to address several other issues facing the current UK legal system. For example, he expressed his determination to change the way family courts operate, making them less hostile and more open and transparent. He also intends to try and tackle high levels of imprisonment and reoffending among female lawbreakers.