HL Deb 15 October 1997 vol 582 cc193-4WA
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What changes they propose to make to the current system of judicial appointments.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

It is essential in the public interest that the judiciary at every level is of the highest possible quality. Appointments will continue to be made strictly on merit, after the independent views of the judiciary and the legal profession have been taken into consideration by the Lord Chancellor; and appointment to full-time office normally made only after satisfactory service in part-time judging.

Nevertheless, improvements can be made. I intend to present an annual report to Parliament on the operation of the judicial appointments system. The first report will cover the period 1998–99. I also intend to end the system of appointment to the High Court bench only by invitation and to invite applications for appointments to the High Court bench, so that all with judicial ambitions can be assured that their cases are properly considered.

I propose to ensure appropriate flexibility in part-time sittings arrangements where, for example, women or men have taken career breaks for family reasons. My officials are developing plans to ensure that those who sit part-time may be able to concentrate their sittings into a shorter period of time than at present. By this means these career breaks will not, so far as practicable, impede career development.

I intend to increase the upper age limit for appointment as Assistant Recorder from 50 to 53 in future competition rounds. Raising the age limit to 53 will widen the pool of potential applicants. The normal period of service as an Assistant Recorder and Recorder, before appointment to the Circuit bench, is five to seven years and an appointment to the Circuit bench at or around 60 would enable the judge to serve for a minimum of 10 years before retiring at 70.

In the longer term I intend to review whether an Ombudsman should be appointed with power to examine fully complaints from anyone who feels unfairly treated by the appointments process; and to review the appointment procedures for deputy High Court judge appointments. I have recently appointed two solicitors, direct from the profession, to act as deputy High Court judges. This has not happened before. I also intend to review the scope to improve arrangements for appraisal of performance of the part-time judiciary, not least to improve the assessments of their performance which contribute to my decisions on applications for full-time office.

Since becoming Lord Chancellor I have decided to involve in the process of shortlisting judicial candidates for interviews both judges and lay members, who will have, in advance, a summary of the views expressed in consultation about every applicant. An additional 28 lay members have been appointed to assist in the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates for a range of judicial appointments including those of Circuit judge, District judge and Assistant Recorder. I have taken steps to promote work on equal opportunities, in conjunction with the legal profession, which I will announce shortly. I have required that any allegation of misconduct made in the course of consultation about a judicial candidate must be specific and subject to disclosure to the candidate.

So far as the magistracy is concerned, I have increased for the first time the upper age limit for appointment as a lay magistrate to 65, so as to draw from the pool of the age group 55–65 to achieve a better social and political balance on the bench. This age group includes many who may have taken early retirement. I have also opened the magistracy to blind candidates on an experimental basis.

I believe that these positive measures will strengthen the openness, flexibility and effectiveness of the arrangements for judicial appointments. I do not rule out further measures in due course. I earlier announced [Official Report 23 June 1997 col. WA 145] that I proposed to consult on the merits of establishing a Judicial Appointments Commission. However, in the light of the measures that I have listed above; the resources of my department; and the other substantial priorities facing my department, including a very heavy workload connected with legal aid and civil justice reforms, I have decided not to proceed with further work on a possible commission, but to concentrate on making those changes I regard as most urgent.