Dr Richard Huggins, Academic Manager and Lecturer in Criminology

ULaw Blog: Is the criminal justice system diverse enough?

The answer to this critical and often asked question is, quite simply, no. No one really disagrees with this answer. While there are some areas of promise, all of the organisations and institutions in the criminal justice system, from the Ministry of Justice to the police service, agree that the system is not anywhere near as diverse as it should be. The professional bodies, such as the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, the Ministry of Justice, the Inns of Court and many individual law firms and barristers’ chambers, are working on strategies and initiatives to diversify the criminal justice system – but is it working?

Looking at the data

If we look at some data on diversity in the criminal justice system we can see the scale of the problem. A 2017 report by JUSTICE (an all-party law reform and human rights organisation) entitled Increasing Judicial Diversity reported that,

‘In England and Wales, the Circuit bench, High Court and Court of Appeal all suffer from a lack of diversity as well. As noted there has been some improvement over the last ten years in the overall proportion of women. However, progress is slow and the absolute numbers remain low. More troubling is the almost total lack of visible BAME people in the senior judiciary. Across the High Court and Court of Appeal, there are only two judges who are not white (less than 2%). On the Circuit bench, of those judges whose ethnicity is known, just 3% are BAME. The dearth of senior judges who are not white is simply unacceptable.’

This report also noted that the lack of socio-economic diversity was of serious concern, citing that, in the High Court and Court of Appeal, three quarters of the judges were privately educated and this has remained constant since the 1980s. As stated above, there are some areas of promise. The same report notes that in the UK, women comprise 50% of the population, BAME people 14% of the population and 93% of people are State educated. On gender and ethnicity, these percentages are broadly reflected in the solicitors’ profession as a whole, while the practising Bar comprises roughly 37% women and 12% BAME people. So this does demonstrate some significant improvement in recent years. However, at the senior end, these percentages drop markedly and the increasing diversity at the junior end of the profession does not translate into diversity at the higher levels.

Why does this matter?

Well, it matters for principles of social justice and societal fairness. It also matters in economic terms. The Lammy Review (2017) (an independent review into the experiences of and outcome for BAME groups in the criminal justice system chaired by David Lammy MP) estimated that the lack of diversity in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer over £309 million per year. Much more importantly, the Lammy Review demonstrates quite clearly that the lack of diversity in the criminal justice system structurally underpins the disproportionality poor outcomes that BAME individuals experience when they encounter the criminal justice system at all levels.

So what is to be done?

As a sector, the criminal justice system does at least recognise that the lack of diversity in the system is unacceptable and has to change, and many are working to address this. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice published its update on Tackling Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, which includes responses to the Lammy Review’s recommendations which the government fully accepted. This is a very positive step which includes a range of practical and systemic changes inspired by national and international evaluations of what works and what can work to reduce the current nature and workings of the criminal justice system. This is, obviously, to be welcomed. However, it remains a ‘work in progress’ which will need constant and ongoing attention to ensure that the lack of diversity in the criminal justice system is addressed.

The University of Law is committed to widening access to the legal professions and to the criminal justice system, and we provide a high-quality legal and business education to a diverse community of students. The University is a welcoming and inclusive environment where onward progression and career success are vitally important for all our students. Indeed, the professional practice backgrounds of the teaching staff, the expertise from professional colleagues in the Careers Service and inclusion of an employability programme in the undergraduate curriculum is testament to this commitment.

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