HC Deb 21 March 2000 vol 346 cc846-8
32. Dr Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

What plans the Lord Chancellor has to review the entry procedures into, and career structures of, the judiciary. [114040]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

The qualifications for professional judicial appointments are prescribed by statute; they are open to those with the relevant legal qualifications, whether solicitors or banisters. In general, the pool of candidates for judicial appointment reflects those entering the legal profession 20 years ago and those who have progressed within it. The Government have no plans to change that policy but are keen to ensure that opportunities exist for promotion within the judiciary.

Dr Gibson

Could my hon. Friend confirm that the job description of the Lord Chancellor is under review and is somewhat onerous and contradictory in places? Could he also tell the House how the public perception of the higher echelons of the judiciary can be changed, because people think they are full of Oxford-educated, public school, genetic morons? While those are easy questions, will he also tell us what steps he is taking to inspect institutionalised racism in the judiciary?

Mr. Lock

First, I shall deal with the issue of the Lord Chancellor. The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental principle of our constitution. In this country, we do not have separation of powers, but rely on a series of checks and balances on the three branches of Government. The office of Lord Chancellor has evolved as one of those checks. The value of the Lord Chancellor is that he upholds judicial independence and can mediate between the Executive and the judiciary when needs be. His office is not under review.

I can tell my hon. Friend that recent research by Professor Hazel Genn has confirmed that while those who gain their impression of the judiciary from newspapers follow the somewhat jaundiced view that he has relayed, those who have experience of appearing before judges have a much better impression of them and are impressed by their professionalism and the public duties that they are undertaking.

As for racism in the appointment process, I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that a thorough review of the process was recently carried out under the former Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir Len Peach, which was highly complimentary. However, it suggested a number of improvements, which my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has accepted in principle and is carrying through.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the Lord Chancellor's Department has had any communication with the criminal justice review group that was established by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? If so, what are its suggestions for judicial appointments? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is crucial that precisely the same standards apply to judicial appointments throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Lock

I can confirm that copies of the draft report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers have been under discussion. The Government are not yet in a position to make any final conclusions on that draft. I entirely agree with him that it is important to ensure that the best people become judges. It is an important position and all appointments must be made on merit regardless of sex, race or the community from which the individual comes. Judges are a vital part of our constitution and the merit principle must be the only guiding factor that determines who should become judges.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I am tempted to say to the Minister after the astonishing attack by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who asked the main question about the role of the Lord Chancellor and that of the judiciary that, with friends like that, he does not need enemies. However, I ask him to reinforce the fact that we are proud of our judges. We have a proud tradition of judges who are completely independent of political influence. Will he confirm that the new judicial appointments commission set up under the recommendations of Sir Len Peach will not impose any ridiculous notions of political correctness? Will he endorse the calibre of our judiciary, of which we are proud?

Mr. Lock

I can certainly confirm that the Government's view is that the vast majority of our judges in the vast majority of courts perform a valuable public service day in and day out. They do so in a professional, efficient and sensitive manner. The proposals in Sir Len Peach's review that have been carried through will improve our ability to ensure that we select the best people to carry out the important role of judges.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Len Peach's recommendations will bring greater objectivity to the appointment of judges, which could in turn encourage people from less representative groups to come forward? Does he further agree that promotions, particularly from the district judge bench, could do much to improve the balance of the more senior levels of the judiciary, bearing in mind that the district judge bench is more representative?

Mr. Lock

I agree that in the past there may have been too great a tendency to promote the best advocates from Bar to bench without sufficient attention being paid to the need for other skills, which are just as present in the litigation solicitor as they are in the successful barrister. As for promotion from one level of the judiciary to another, I assure my hon. Friend that all appointments, whether internal or external, are made on merit. It will be open for district judges to apply for promotion to circuit judge, and they will have to compete on merit with others who are applying to come into the judiciary at that higher level.

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