Law students asked to determine if a judge’s gender affected their rulings were unable to establish a discernible difference.
The undergraduates at Durham University were asked to carry out an experiment on whether they could tell the gender of a judge based on their judgement.
Durham Law School’s Professor Erika Rackley and her students picked up a gauntlet laid down by the country’s most senior judge, Lord Neuberger, in an interview earlier this year with BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action.
The experiment saw the students study 16 judgments from the Court of Appeal – half made by men, half by women.
Anything identifying the gender of the judges was removed and the students were asked to decide which judgments were written by women and which by men.
The students were able to correctly identify the gender of the judge with a success rate of just 46%. Overall, they were slightly better at spotting a women-authored judgment in the employment and family cases. But the success rate dropped to just 33% when it came to the criminal cases.
Despite that, Professor Rackley said this did not weaken the argument for a more diverse judiciary, claiming it said more about the students’ assumptions about possible differences between male and female judges, rather than the real differences between them.
She said: “The more varied the body of knowledge and collective wisdom an individual judge has to draw on when making their decisions, the better those decisions will be. A diverse judiciary is a better judiciary.”
Earlier this year, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, was asked during a Law in Action interview about the issue of low numbers of women in the senior judiciary.
Of the 12 members of the Supreme Court, only one is a woman. Presenter Joshua Rozenberg asked whether women justices offered a different insight from men when making deciding cases.
Acknowledging that there was a problem with a lack of diversity in the judiciary, Lord Neuberger replied that new research would be helpful to establish whether there were differences in how women and men decided cases.
Prof Rackley said: “No one claims that a judge’s gender will make a difference in all cases. In reality what this experiment tested was the students’ assumptions as to the possible differences between men and women judges, rather than the real differences between them.
“The argument for the importance of having a more diverse judiciary is not that we will have women judging one way, and men the other.
“Rather it is that the insights of both will be fed into the law and lead to better decision-making on all sides.”