HL Deb 04 November 2002 vol 640 cc471-3

Baroness Howe of Idlicote asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the "significant concerns about the judicial appointments process" recently identified in the first annual report of the Commission for Judicial Appointments.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, my first response is that these concerns have to be kept in perspective. In the period 15th March 2001 to 31st March 2002, the commission accepted only 10 complaints out of 3,626 unsuccessful applicants. Six of the 10 are covered by the commissioner's first report. Of these six, three were about Silk applications and were upheld; one was about judicial appointments and was partially upheld; two were about judicial appointments and were rejected. All four outstanding at the end of March this year were about judicial appointments. Since the report was published, three of these have been rejected and one remains under consideration. The complaints that were upheld, however, were on the basis of procedural and administrative failings that did not go to the merits of the substantive decisions.

I turn to the concerns. One was that the system may not be fully understood. We publish the most detailed guidance for applicants and provide detailed feedback for the unsuccessful. We shall redouble these efforts.

Another concern is that the quality of responses from consultees is variable. I agree, and I constantly urge that they should be based on stated experience as fully particularised as possible and expressly related to the criteria.

Finally, concern was expressed about the lack of a clear audit trail to show that assessments that should have been disregarded were in fact disregarded. That we shall improve too, and we are putting very substantial further resources into this year's Silks round.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that helpful Answer. However, I want to query a slightly wider aspect of the report. The commission expressed concern not least about the continuing lack of diversity. Should we, for example, be worried that there are not enough suitably qualified women or members of ethnic minorities among the appointments made? Is it now time to involve the commission directly in the actual process of selection and appointment of judges and QCs—as, I believe, was originally envisaged in Sir Leonard Peach's report in 1999? Will the noble and learned Lord further accept that such a change might ensure that the selection and appointment of judges was then perceived as a much more open and democratic process, and above all more plainly independent of Ministers?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness has a keen interest in this subject—and I appreciate the interest of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. I acknowledge the important work that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, undertakes as chair of the Hansard Society Commission on Women at the Top. But, in fact, women are doing very well against the competition. Only this morning, I had the pleasure of swearing in Laura Cox QC as a High Court judge.

It is important not to make false comparisons. A false comparison is: what is the proportion of women in the profession today and why are not the same proportion of women judges today? The true comparison relates to the profile of practitioners of 20 or more years ago. That is the pool from which judges are appointed. Twenty or more years ago, women were a very much smaller proportion of the profession. By this standard—the true standard—women are doing very well at all levels.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

My Lords, perhaps I may indicate to my noble and learned friend that there is great support for his efforts to make the Bench much more diverse. However, a question has been raised as to whether the appointments might not be better undertaken by a judicial appointments commission. This report was conducted by Sir Colin Campbell with the assistance of a very diverse group of people, half of whom were women and two of whom were from ethnic minorities. It indicated how an independent group of people can bring some real clarity to issues relating to appointment. Would it not be better to have an independent judicial appointments commission rather than have decisions made ultimately by someone—albeit someone whom we greatly respect—who is both the head of the judiciary and a Cabinet member? Is it not time to separate those powers and to create a truly independent judiciary?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I have said a number of times, I have not excluded the possibility of a judicial appointments commission that would have a greater role in the appointments system than the present supervisory commission which is intended, through its reports, to give greater public confidence. However, I believe that we should live with the present commission for some time before considering going further.

Some suggest a judicial appointments commission; others suggest that Silk appointments should be made by the profession—by the Bar Council and the Law Society. But that would have its perils as well. It would be said that the professions were feathering their own nest by appointing too many Queen's Counsel; on the other hand, it would be said that if your face did not fit at the Inn you would not get Silk. Furthermore, a judicial appointments commission which made or recommended appointments would be a quango—which many might not favour—with all the risks of deals, compromises and quotas which would undermine a merits-based system. I have an open mind, but these are serious considerations.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the report of the Lord Chancellor's Department on judicial appointments for 2001-02 indicates that, out of nine new appointments to the High Court Bench in the period under review, none was the appointment of a woman, nor was either of the appointments to the Court of Appeal or to the House of Lords. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that this suggests that something is badly wrong? Will he consider, for example, abolishing the circuit system for High Court judges, which is likely to be a serious deterrent for women who might otherwise be suitable for appointment? Will he accept that the consultation system may place at a disadvantage women who have cut their workload temporarily because of childcare commitments?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord focuses attention on the senior judicial appointments. Certainly, I would like to see many more women in these appointments in the future but without prejudice to a merit-based system. But if we look at judicial office overall, for the fourth year running the number of women appointed to judicial office has increased. Women are doing very well. First, let us take the proportion of successful applicants who were women in 1998–99: it was 23.5 per cent. It is now 34.4 per cent. Let us take the proportion of men and women who apply and are successful: in 2001, 23.5 per cent of women who applied were successful, compared to 20.8 per cent of male applicants. There is a similar pattern in applications for Silk. In every year since 1998, the proportion of women applicants for Silk who were successful has been greater than the proportion of male applicants who were successful. It may, of course, be that women are better judges of their own merits than men are of their own merits.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords—

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we are in the ninth minute now. I am afraid that we have overrun our time.

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