New report uncovers ‘institutional racism’ in the justice system

A new report by experts from the University and barrister Keir Monteith KC has raised urgent questions about racial attitudes and practices in the justice system in England and Wales.

Although the judiciary wields enormous power over individuals, its operations are alarmingly underscrutinised, and one area that has remained largely beyond examination is judicial racial bias. The report, led by Professor Eithne Quinn and Mr Monteith who has held a Simon Fellowship at the University of Manchester, 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.

Professor Quinn explains, “Judges are usually seen – and often see themselves – as neutral arbiters, but this can be far from the truth. 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.”

Overall, the report suggests that the combination of quantitative and qualitative data presented, substantiated by a growing body of 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.