This interview was first published by the Editor of the’ Benchmark’ and was published on Judges, Tribunals and Magistrates. District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts) Tanweer Ikram is one of our visiting faculty members and he is an integral part of Pakistan College of Law. We always look forward to his yearly visits to our college where he takes classes on Criminal Law with the first year law students. It is also worth mentioning here that the recent successful Moot Court competition, The 3rd PCL National Moot Court Competition- 2014 was also sponsored by him. In this post, District Judge Tan Ikram, the new Deputy Lead Diversity and Community Relations Judge, discusses the need for the judiciary to be more diverse in re-shaping the society of the UK.
DJ(MC) Tan Ikram is now in his third year as a Diversity and Community Relations Judge, having joined as part of the first wave of non-circuit judges, when membership was extended beyond the circuit bench.
“Diversity has been an issue for me for a long time,” he explains.Starting out Judge Ikram’s father was a postman, and he was the first graduate in his family.
He began his legal career at the Bar, before becoming a solicitor (and, as it happened, one of the first Asian solicitors in his home town – “which conferred a massive competitive advantage”).
“Moving from the Bar in independent practice to working in solicitors’ firms is increasingly common now,” he explains. “An increasing number at the Bar see comfort in a regular salary, and the quality of work is as good. I did a lot of interesting Crown Court advocacy in my last few years of practice.”
What do we mean by diversity?
Diversity is most often used, in a judicial context, as shorthand for increasing the number of women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) judicial office-holders – but DJ(MC) Ikram’s definition of diversity covers everything from ethnic identity and sexual orientation to gender and family background.
His focus is on the subtler ways in which perceptions, and cultural influences limit ambition and aspirations of candidates.
“I remember when I was in private practice, there was a proposal to limit our recruitment to trainees from Russell Group universities. I argued against that, because I thought that it might weaken the diversity of people joining the firm.
“The thought process had been that as a Legal 500 firm we could pick and choose from the brightest brains.”
Judge Ikram argued that the policy excluded an entire swathe of the “brightest brains” from backgrounds that simply couldn’t fund, or aspire to, a ‘top’ university. It ignored late developers & the potential talent in that group.
And there was an example conveniently close to hand: “I didn’t go to a Russell Group university, and I’d made partner within three years of joining the firm.”
In the end, the policy was modified to include consideration of “exceptional” candidates from other universities.
“I won that small battle, but it shows the unintended consequences that there are in a competitive world – that in seeking what is perceived as the ‘obvious’ best candidates, you can ignore that there are ‘best’ candidates from elsewhere as well.
“The Russell Group is a superb group to recruit from, but there is a danger of casting the net too narrowly.”
Bringing legal firms on board
Further barriers for many would-be applicants are imposed by their choice of firm.
“A high-performing equity partner is expected to bring in the fees and new work, and judicial office is perceived as a distraction,” says DJ(MC) Ikram.
“It is also perceived, in some circles, that your long-term interests are not with the firm.”
There is, he concedes, some truth in that – but such a viewpoint ignores the benefits that sitting as a judge can bring to a lawyer and his firm.
“I think that when I sat part-time, I really honed my understanding of what the levers in a courtroom were, and what actually were the considerations for the judge. I could come back and apply that to my own work. My clients if they found out, also loved being represented by a judge.”
The perception can change once a firm has seen one of its lawyers join the judiciary; for example, Judge Ikram has mentored one of his former assistants and seen them gain their own judicial appointment.
But it is, he believes, only a partial advance: if Firm A’s lawyers follow their former colleagues into the judiciary, but Firm B’s have no precedent and don’t apply, the pool of potential candidates suffers.
“The real challenge is to go out, and to spread the view that judicial office is a realistic aspiration.
“It’s often a question of confidence. I think that people from non-traditional backgrounds often wouldn’t have expected to become a lawyer– for example, first generation graduates. It doesn’t occur to them that they could become a judge.”
A self-imposed glass ceiling
And that confidence – or lack of – is, DJ(MC) Ikram believes, also a key factor at the very earliest stage: the classroom.
Privileged backgrounds can create an expectation of achievement and make possible the best schools, but there also more intangible benefits – such as funding for the kinds of activities that build candidate confidence and an impressive application form.
“I was at an event last week for schoolkids, and even at the different schools you could see the difference: the kids at ‘good’ schools were asking very focused, intelligent questions and were aspiring to be barristers and lawyers.
“The kids at the other schools didn’t – and when I challenged their teachers, they said ‘hold on, our kids aren’t going to Oxford and Cambridge; we have to talk to them about apprenticeships’. And there’s nothing wrong with apprenticeships, they’re essential and for some the right route, but to have them as the only option is creating a glass ceiling.”
So, where next?
Creating true diversity – in the judiciary and society as a whole – essentially means looking at the whole picture.
It’s a large task, to put it mildly.
However, DJ(MC) Ikram believes it’s an idea whose time has come: “It’s evolution; what we thought 20-30 years ago is not what we think today.
“There have been changes in the priorities of society – you now hear that the Institute of Directors is talking about increasing the number of women directors; Parliament is looking to increase the number of women and BAME MPs. Even debate as to whether catwalk models are reflective of our community. It’s all part of the recognition that we need to work harder across the board.”
He is delighted by the Lord Chief Justice’s public commitment to the issue: “It’s so encouraging to see Lord Thomas make this a priority, because it’s only going to happen if the leadership – across society, not just the judiciary – show that it’s important. If they do, others will fall into line.”
Such a commitment, he says, puts the judiciary where they should be – in the forefront of the movement.
However, there is a firm line, he adds, to be drawn between encouraging awareness and ambition, and giving artificial assistance.
“I don’t believe in positive discrimination; I don’t believe in any process other than on merit. What we need to do is bring people to the starting line together.”