Authors:Tessa Lieven Wright
Last updated:2023-11-28
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Racial bias at the bench
A year on from Racial bias and the bench, has any progress been made?
Racial bias and the bench: one year on’ was a hybrid event, chaired by Professor Gary Younge, that took place on 7 November to mark 12 months since publication of the University of Manchester report. It offered experts and practitioners a space to assess whether any progress had been made and a platform to have their recommendations heard.
Racial bias and the bench (see December 2022/January 2023 Legal Action 15) was written in response to the Judicial Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (2020–25), which was published in November 2020 and, according to Professor Eithne Quinn (one of the co-authors of the report, speaking at the event), ‘looked inadequate’. A survey of 373 legal professionals formed the basis for the report’s 10 recommendations. It includes a number of devastating findings about judicial diversity, including that 95 per cent of survey respondents said that ‘racial bias plays some role in the processes and/or outcomes of the justice system’. In addition, over half said that they ‘had witnessed one or more judges acting in a racially biased way’ (page 6).
This event was hopeful and despairing in equal measure. In his closing address, Keir Monteith KC, a co-author of the report, uttered the phrase many had alluded to throughout the evening: ‘This should have happened decades ago.’ Abimbola Johnson, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and chair of the Independent Scrutiny and Oversight Board, echoed Monteith’s words in her appraisal of the report. While she welcomed its findings, she highlighted that there have been similar reports in the past that have not produced results, and that now ‘institutional change’ is needed.
Johnson highlighted the steps that the judiciary must implement, ranging from anti-racism training on discrimination in court to a recognition that the lack of judicial diversity is directly linked to the racism and discrimination that many young barristers face at the outset of their careers. Katrina Ffrench, founder and managing director of UNJUST, explained that many lawyers – of all backgrounds – struggle to speak out against judges due to their esteemed position in society. They can be left ‘untouched’, she said, and we need to ensure that there is direct accountability for ‘dodgy judges’.
Haroon Siddique, legal affairs correspondent at the Guardian, agreed that judges should be held to account for their actions in the courtroom. He suggested that a step to achieving this would be to open up access to the courtroom – for example, through cameras – otherwise we can only rely on the testimonies of lawyers or the occasional journalist. Siddique also questioned why we only see judicial scrutiny in the press from a right-wing agenda (‘woke judges’ in the Daily Mail). Why can we, as a society, criticise judges for being ‘woke’ but not for being racist?
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was represented at the event by Graham Ritchie, deputy director of strategy and policy. He explained that there has been progress in the CPS but that it is difficult to achieve because institutions like it, the judiciary and the police are all ‘independent and dispersed’, which ‘makes it hard to look for a single point of leadership … and hard to find someone to prioritise this issue’. Ffrench replied that if the civil service is going to treat this issue as a ‘hot potato’ then society needs to take ‘responsibility and change it’.
Racial discrimination is still prevalent at the bench, which the 2022 report highlights in valuable detail. However, the event showed that the onus is on the institutions – primarily the judiciary – to force change. As Johnson explained, Black lawyers are tired of having to do the work to encourage diversity – they are not paid for this extra labour and often are assumed to be ‘anti-racism experts just because they’re Black’.
Ffrench called the criminal justice system, as it’s commonly known, the ‘criminal legal system’ because it does not represent justice for everyone. This is a fact of which we should be collectively ashamed. Those with the power to make change must act now to reaffirm public faith in the judiciary and our legal system.