A new report, 'Racial Bias and the Bench' by experts from The University of Manchester and Keir Monteith KC has raised urgent questions about racial attitudes and practices in the justice system in England and Wales. Keir Monteith QC undertook this work as a Simon Fellow at The University of Manchester. He is also a barrister at Garden Court Chambers.
Professor Eithne Quinn of The University of Manchester is the report's academic lead author.
The content below is reproduced with permission from a University of Manchester press release.
Although the judiciary wields enormous power over individuals, its operations are alarmingly under scrutinised, and one area that has remained largely beyond examination is judicial racial bias. The report draws on a survey of 373 legal professionals.
95% of respondents said that racial bias plays some role in the processes or outcomes of the justice system, and 29% said it played a ‘fundamental role’. A majority of respondents had witnessed one or more judges acting in a racially biased way towards a defendant and in their decision-making.
Racial discrimination by judges is most frequently directed towards Asian and Black people according to the survey, with people from Black communities - lawyers, witnesses, defendants, etc. - by far the most common targets of judicial discrimination. Young Black male defendants were the subgroup most frequently mentioned as targets of judicial bias.
The survey did find that some judges are already acting in ‘antiracist’ ways by being conscious of and knowledgeable about racism, and seeking to mitigate it - however, only a minority of respondents had ever seen a judge act in this way.
Race training is neither compulsory nor provided on a regular basis – only 49% of the respondents who have worked as judicial officeholders had received race training in the preceding three years.
The report emerges as serious questions are already being asked about the treatment of ethnic minority people in the justice system. Black barristers are underrepresented and report experiencing racism from judges, magistrates and panel members. On top of this, The Lammy Review and the Race at the Bar report found that sentencing outcomes are often harsher for ethnic minority defendants.
Overall, the report suggests that the combination of quantitative and qualitative data presented, substantiated by the kind of reports listed above, amounts to evidence of ‘institutional racism’ in the justice system presided over by judges.
The report is a response to the five-year strategy launched by Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon to enhance equality and diversity in the judiciary, and finds that it does not consider the issue of racism or even mention ‘racial bias’. Researchers found a profound disparity between the conclusions of the strategy - that the justice system is basically fair and that progress has been made - when compared to the widespread views and experiences of the legal professionals surveyed.
In addition, the report is critical of the Equal Treatment Bench Book, the textbook given to all judges on appointment, in terms of its framing of bias and racism, especially its lack of acknowledgement of anti-Black racism in the justice system.
The evidence in the report rings alarm bells about access to fair trials, hearings and tribunals as well as to equal professional development.
“Racism in the justice system has to be acknowledged and fought by those at the highest level, but at the moment there is complete and utter silence - and as a consequence, there is no action to combat racial bias,” said Keir Monteith KC. “It is impossible to have diversity and inclusion if the system itself unfairly discriminates. There has to be a hard reboot to protect and revitalize the rule of law and civil rights for all citizens - a good start would be to follow the recommendations in our report.”
“Judges need to sit up and listen, because it is a myth that Lady Justice is blind to colour,” said Professor Leslie Thomas KC, who wrote the report’s Foreword. “Our judiciary as an institution is just as racist as our police forces, our education system and our health service - this is something that cannot be ignored for any longer.”
“Judges are usually seen - and often see themselves - as neutral arbiters, but this can be far from the truth,” said the report’s academic lead author, Professor Eithne Quinn from The University of Manchester. “Our findings show that from their demeanour to their decision-making, judges often play a role in fuelling and normalising the terrible disparities in our legal system. The sooner this is widely realised, the sooner change can be instigated.”
“This important report demonstrates that the very low number of Black and minority ethnic judges poses an acute challenge to the credibility and legitimacy of the judiciary,” said Stephanie Needleman from JUSTICE. “It is only by creating a critical mass of diverse judges that we can ensure that our judiciary is reflective of society and begin to combat the racism witnessed by survey respondents.”
“We welcome, and are grateful to have been consulted on, this hard-hitting report,” said former Judge Claire Gilham from the Judicial Support Network. “My whistleblowing about racism was dismissed as me not understanding judicial culture, having come from the wrong background. There is no internal data keeping for equality complaints, which makes it very difficult for the judiciary to provide any evidence to deny the findings of this report. A severe shake-up of the system is needed.”
“Even after 25 years as a Trade Union Official, I am shocked at the practices employed in the appointment and promotion of judges,” said Stuart Fegan from GMB. “The Judiciary is funded with public money, and the practices identified would simply not be tolerated anywhere else in the public sector. I am delighted that Labour have committed to review appointment and promotion procedures if they win the next election in order to ensure that judges are reflective of the public they serve.”
For more information about the report, please contact academic lead author Professor Eithne Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Guardian: 'Judiciary in England and Wales ‘institutionally racist’, says report'
The Times: Judiciary is ‘as racist as the police force’
Law Society Gazette: 'Judges presiding over 'institutionally racist' justice system - report'
About The University of Manchester
The University of Manchester is a member of the prestigious Russell Group, and one of the UK’s largest single-site universities.
They have over 40,000 students, 12,000 staff and, with almost 480,000 former students from more than 190 countries, are home to the largest alumni community of any campus-based university in the UK. No fewer than 25 Nobel laureates have either worked or studied here.
They are the world's number one university in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, recognising the actions taken towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They are also the top UK University for graduate employability according to The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide. They are ranked 27th in the world in the QS World University Rankings (2020) and 6th in the UK, and are also 8th in the Reuters Top 100: Europe's most innovative universities (2019).
About Keir Montieth KC
Keir became a Simon Fellow at The University of Manchester in September 2021, working with Humanities, Legal, and Sociology researchers to inject expertise and ambition into the judiciary’s recently-announced plans to tackle racial bias. He is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and a highly sought-after leading silk who represents clients facing heavyweight criminal allegations. He also sits as a Recorder.
Keir has initiated a series of webinars that examined the State’s criminalisation of Black youth through racist stereotypes of gangs and Drill music. He also spearheaded a series of Black Lives Matter webinars exploring issues that ranged from UK policing of so-called "gang activity" resulting in deportation, in-depth analysis of racism in the justice system and the Black Lives Matter protests.