A founder of a new diversity pressure group has suggested the time has come for an 'equal merit' provision to help talented black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers join larger firms.

Sundeep Bhatia (pictured) co-founded Asian Lawyers GB, supported by the Society of Black Lawyers, after the report published in March by professor Gus John showed that BME solicitors continue to be disproportionately represented in the Solicitors Regulation Authority's activities.

The SRA last week accepted John's findings and said it had already begun implementing reforms to address factors that contribute to the problem.

John's report concluded that the disproportionality was not due to direct discrimination, but because BME lawyers are over-represented in sole practitioner and small firms which are more vulnerable to regulatory action.

Bhatia told the Gazette that disproportionality has 'blighted' the profession for years and while 'lip service' had been paid to the challenges faced by BME lawyers, little has changed.

He said selection panels should be as diverse as possible and firms permitted to exercise an 'equal merit' policy, as adopted by the Judicial Appointments Commission. Where two candidates are of equal merit, firms should be encouraged to recruit the one from an under-represented group.

To address issues within the SRA, Bhatia called for a scrutiny group to monitor the SRA's investigations and treatment of BME lawyers, increased BME representation within the SRA, and impact assessments prior to proposed regulatory change.

If the 'abysmal statistics' continue, there should be some parliamentary scrutiny, he said.

The group, together with the Society of Asian Lawyers (SAL) welcomed the SRA's acknowledgment of the issue. The SAL called for 'urgent action' to change the SRA's 'appalling practices'.

SAL president Jo Sidhu QC said the SRA's response is 'a tacit acceptance of institutional bias and discrimination in their treatment of BME firms'.

The Law Society is setting up a consultative group to help engage more successfully with BME members.

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