Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke has announced a consultation on a number of measures designed to increase the cultural diversity of the UK’s judiciary.

It will seek views on whether, when considering two candidates of genuinely equal ability, there should be a presumption in favour of selecting the person from an underrepresented group, such as women or ethnic minorities.

However, Mr Clarke emphasised that judges should always be selected on merit first.

“The calibre of our judges should never be compromised – their role is too important. Candidates should always be assessed on merit,” he said.

However, the minister added: “But swathes of talent are going untapped. Ability is not confined to certain narrow sections of society, in certain racial, social or other groups. The more widely we search, the more likely we are to find the best candidates.”

According to government figures, 13.7 per cent of senior judges are women and 3.1 per cent are from black and Asian groups, compared to 51 per cent and 12 per cent of the wider population.

The new consultation also proposes extending salaried part-time judicial roles to the High Court and Court of Appeal to increase the diversity and inclusion of women and minorities at senior levels of the judiciary.

“I am especially concerned to open up the judiciary to those with caring responsibilities,” said Mr Clarke.

“It should no longer be the case that an able woman who seeks a post in the senior judiciary is at a disadvantage because she chose to pause her career to have a family.”

It follows recent comments from Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, the country’s second most senior judge, who, in an interview with the Times, said he would have no problem with female or ethnic minority candidates for top judicial positions being favoured over white men when the two applicants are otherwise equal in order to increase diversity.