Graham Gee: The Lord Chief Justice and Section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act

This is posted on behalf of Graham Gee and originally appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Association Blog.

The Constitutional Reform Act redrew relationships between the senior judiciary and Parliament in a number of ways. Amongst the most significant was removing the right of the LCJ to speak in the Lords. Earlier this month, the new LCJ Lord Thomas repeated the lament of his immediate predecessors that it was a mistake to deprive the LCJ of the right to address Parliament on the floor of the House on important matters relating to the administration of justice. In this context, some have read the LCJ’s suggestion of a new approach to s5 of the CRA as significant. Drawing on interviews conducted between 2011-13 as part of an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence, I want to shed some light on tensions that have arisen about the use of s5.

Section 5

Under s5, each of the LCJ, the LCJ for Northern Ireland and the Lord President “may lay before Parliament written representations on matters that appear to [the officeholder] to be matters of importance relating to the judiciary, or otherwise to the administration of justice”. In debates ten years ago on the bill that became the CRA, the then LCJ and Lord Chancellor—Lord Woolf and Lord Falconer—both suggested that s5 would be used rarely and only for high profile matters of serious concern to the judiciary. Subsequently, both Lords Phillips and Judge appeared to confirm this by describing s5 as a “nuclear option” to be used only in the face of a serious threat to judicial independence or the rule of law. (See here and here). But, in practice, neither used s5 in this way, invoking it instead for the more humdrum matter of laying before Parliament periodic reports on the management of the judiciary. Behind this lies a surprising and even at times rather silly disagreement between senior judges and parliamentary authorities; or what an interviewee called “a storm in a teacup”.

“A Storm in a Teacup”

In late 2007 and early 2008, there were lengthy discussions between the LCJ, the Procedure Committee, the Journal Offices in the Commons and Lords and others about the most appropriate way of getting the LCJ’s reports before Parliament. At issue were rival interpretations of the proper scope and purpose of s5. Reversing his previous position, Lord Phillips now argued that s5 was not only to be used in “a crunch situation” to raise pressing issues of concern, but that it also supplied a statutory mechanism whereby the LCJ can lay periodic reports before Parliament. The clerks did not dispute that a report can be laid under s5, provided it contained “written representations”. Rather, they relied on statements by ministers and Lord Phillips himself to argue that s5 was only for raising serious concerns.

Driving the clerk’s arguments were rules regulating who has authority to formally “lay” papers in the Commons. Under these rules, ministers are effectively the only officeholders authorized to do so. (See this guidance from the Journal Office from April 2009). The clerks suggested instead that the Speaker and the Lords Speaker should place the report in the libraries of the Commons and Lords as a deposited paper on behalf of the LCJ. Lord Phillips initially agreed to this, only to change his mind shortly before publication of his first report, insisting that he should be able to lay his report independently, without relying on the Speaker, the Lords Speaker or anyone else. Lord Phillips’s eleventh-hour reversal surprised the clerks. As one interviewee observed, “it was frankly all a bit of shambles, and there was a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of crossed wires”. In the end, Lord Phillips invoked s5 to lay his report before Parliament, with this fact noted on the face of the report itself—although, as one interviewee told us, in reality what actually happened was that the report was laid before the House on his behalf by the Clerk of the House.

In 2009 Lord Judge’s officials approached clerks in the Commons to discuss using s5 to lay the then new LCJ’s report before Parliament, but they were “sent away with a flea in their ear”, leading to what an interviewee labelled “a bit of a tiff”. In 2010, Lord Judge issued his report, but without using s5. Subsequently he initiated negotiations with the House of Lords authorities, agreeing with them that in the future the Lords would accept reports issued under s5. Two years later, a similar agreement was reached with the Commons, and in both 2012 and 2013 the LCJ’s reports were laid before both Houses under s5.

This back-and-forth, together with all of the tensions and frustration it generated, is aptly described as “a storm in a teacup”. But like many a storm in a teacup, it reveals something about the actors involved as they fumbled to redefine working relationships following the 2005 changes. These relations have been redefined less in a systematic fashion, and more by touch-and-feel, with missteps along the way. These missteps resulted largely from a failure to understand the other’s concerns and anxieties. The judges underestimated the cautiousness of the clerks and their concern to protect Parliament’s privileges and customs. The clerks in turn did not adequately grasp the importance that senior judges placed on finding new ways of communicating with politicians, especially in light of changes to the role of Lord Chancellor. Matters were not aided by successive LCJs sending mixed messages on s5. Similar patterns can be seen in other aspects of judicial-legislative relations: some parliamentary officials feel that senior judges have sent mixed signals on the appropriate scope of questioning of judicial witnesses by select committees.

Relations are improving, with the agreement that was eventually reached over s5 evidence of this. And careful coordination is taking place on both sides to nurture mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s concerns. The previous LCJ, Lord Judge, and the current Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, are both more outward looking than their predecessors and have developed more frequent informal contacts. To aid a better mutual understanding, the Clerk of the House has begun holding regular informal meetings with the LCJ and President of the UK Supreme Court, where topics discussed have included sub judice, the use of parliamentary materials in court and parliamentary privilege. The new guidance from the Judicial Executive Board in 2012 on judicial appearances before select committees is in part a product of these contacts.

When should s5 be used?

The tone of his evidence before the Justice Committee earlier this month suggests that Lord Thomas wants to build on this more outward-looking approach. In his evidence, he referred to the enduring respect that exists between Parliament and the judiciary, but hinted at concern about a lack of understanding between them. It was in this context that the LCJ suggested that he took a different view on s5 than his predecessors, eschewing the description of it as a nuclear option. He did not elaborate on the circumstances in which he envisaged using s5, although it is safe to assume that he will continue to invoke s5 to lay reports before Parliament. Although it is sensible for the senior judiciary to search out new and fruitful ways of communicating with Parliament, s5 is best retained as a measure of last resort.

The reason can be simply stated: the LCJ already has a suite of tools available for articulating concerns to ministers, parliamentarians, lawyers or the public at large. These include monthly meetings with the Lord Chancellor and, in a fairly recent innovation, twice yearly meetings with the Prime Minister. As and when serious concerns arise, the LCJ can request an extraordinary meeting with the PM. This happened in 2001, when the LCJ and a team of senior judges went to 10 Downing Street and persuaded Tony Blair to abandon a planned reorganization in Whitehall under which responsibility for the courts would have shifted to the Home Office. Other tools include speeches, press conferences and appearances before select committees. Where bills concern the administration of the courts or constitutional matters pertaining to the judiciary, judges already routinely provide evidence—oral and written—to committees. The chairs of both the Commons Justice and the Lord Constitution Committees have indicated that the LCJ can approach them to request an urgent session to hear from the LJC on topics of serious concern to the judiciary. Under HMCTS’s Framework Document, special processes are now also available to the LCJ to raise concerns about court funding.

These tools will usually be sufficient for voicing judicial concerns. They will alert stakeholders, generate coverage in the press and often secure favorable results for the judges. Absent a real constitutional crisis, it is difficult to imagine what using s5 could add; almost always there will be more appropriate, and more effective, ways of highlighting judicial concerns short of submitting formal representations to Parliament. A prudent LCJ will engage with ministers in private first, and only slowly escalate the matter in public. When relations with government are proving troublesome, the LCJ must decide whether to raise a concern publicly, how and where, reflecting on whether putting ministers on the spot in public will advance the judicial cause over the long haul. Knowing how to advance judicial interests inside Whitehall and Westminster requires political judgment. Almost always the LCJ will be well advised to avoid escalating matters through s5. Above all, there is something to be said for having an identified measure of last resort recognized by ministers, MPs, peers and civil servants as a tool that the LCJ would only use in the most strained circumstances. Seeking to employ 5 as something other than a measure of last resort to be used only in the most serious circumstances ultimately risks undercutting its potency.

A Final Word on the LCJ’s Reports

There are more appropriate ways than s5 for ensuring that the LCJ’s reports are laid before Parliament. Only four such reports have been prepared over nearly 10 years. They offer a selective, high-level account of the stewardship of the judiciary, with their irregular frequency rendering it impossible to compare performance of the senior judiciary over time. Successive LCJs have resisted producing the reports annually on the grounds that it would be administratively burdensome. This seems a poor excuse given the wide array of management and leadership responsibilities exercised by, or in the name of, the LCJ. It seems that Lord Thomas now intends to issue reports annually. Talk is cheap: Lord Phillips made a similar commitment in 2007, only for his successor to resile from it. To ensure regular reports, the LCJ should be under a statutory duty to produce an annual report similar to that on the Senior President of Tribunals, except that it should include explicit statutory authority to enable the LCJ to lay reports directly with each House.

Graham Gee is a law lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In 2011-2013 he worked with Robert Hazell, Kate Malleson and Patrick O’Brien on an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence.

Where next for the Court Service? The struggle between the Judiciary and the Executive

14th August 2013

On 26th March 2013, a low key written ministerial statement appeared before the House of Commons from the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, declaring that he had asked staff to ‘explore proposals for the reform of the resourcing and administration of our courts and tribunals.’ Lodged between announcements that student loans were to be sold off and the reprivatisation of the East Coast mainline, it wasn’t until two months later when The Times splashed that one of the proposals was the full privatisation of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) that it attracted any attention.

From there, the ball started rolling: The Ministry of Justice denied the reports that a ‘wholesale’ privatisation was on the cards. It was revealed that management consultants McKinsey & Co and magic circle law firm Slaughter & May had been appointed to explore options for increasing revenue at HMCTS. A letter from the Lord Chief Justice was leaked. Since then, however, there has been silence as the proposals are worked on.

With the future of HMCTS in doubt, this blog post will give you a brief guide to the court service, as well as a look ahead to where it might be going. It uses a 2006 report commissioned by the Canadian Judicial Council into alternative models of court administration as the framework; a report that was influential in the judiciary’s thinking when negotiating with Jack Straw over the future of the court service in 2007.

The Executive takes charge

Originally, administration and funding of the courts was predominantly by local authorities. Although the Assizes received a subsidy from the Home Office, criminal and civil courts were largely run and staffed by local authority staff in local authority buildings. County courts would be found, not in dedicated court buildings, but crammed into civic buildings or magistrates’ courts.
It was against that background that a 1969 report into the courts chaired by Dr Beeching found “courts with no waiting rooms, no consulting rooms, no refreshment facilities and with toilet facilities which were disgustingly insanitary.” Lawyers, witnesses, police offers, victims and the accused would all jostle for space with disused furniture and each other.

That report led to the passage of the Courts Act 1971. While it may now be more famous for abolishing the Assizes and the creation of the Crown Court, the Act also had the effect of radically centralising court administration. The Lord Chancellor’s Department was transformed into a fully-fledged central government department with 10,000 civil servants running a unified court service.

This was the move into what the Canadian report describes as the executive model. In it, ultimate authority and responsibility flows through the Responsible Minister. Court administration is one part of a broader civil service and, often, a broader Justice department. The role for the judiciary in the model is ill-defined; whether their input is sought is purely a matter of executive discretion. One of the ideas fundamental to the model working and not compromising judicial independence is that there is a clear dividing line between judicial functions and administration: the allocation of cases to individual judges, for example, is a judicial function to be controlled by judges.

It isn’t difficult to see where tensions arose from. In 1989, Lord Browne-Wilkinson gave an FA Mann lecture that recalled Lord Hewart’s famous tract ‘The New Despotism.’ He pointed to several examples, such as the use of Deputy High Court judges or the number and quality of staff, which were ostensibly mere administrative decisions, but had a direct impact on the conduct of cases. After Lord Justice Purchas retired from the bench, he went on to pursue the argument that judges should run the court service in the New Law Journal.

The move to a Partnership

The end of the executive run court service was brought about by the constitutional reforms begun under Tony Blair. In 2003, on the day of the announcement that the Lord Chancellor’s position was to be abolished the senior judiciary and civil servants in the Lord Chancellor’s department had been meeting to discuss ways of better working together without an inkling of what was about to happen.

With each new announcement about the future of the Lord Chancellor, the judiciary felt it was increasingly necessary to try and negotiate safeguards for the court service. They wanted a service which would be accountable to the Lord Chief Justice as well as the Lord Chancellor, they wanted a bigger role for the judiciary in a new court service and they wanted the budget ring fenced to protect it from the new Ministry of Justice’s competing demands.

However, it was only with the installation of Jack Straw as Lord Chancellor in 2007 that they were able to achieve any progress and, having had sight of the Canadian report, elected for a partnership model. The judiciary had no appetite for taking court administration on themselves and envisaged a system which would guarantee a ‘judicial voice’ in the court service while day-to-day administration remained in the hands of professional civil servants, accountable to a joint judicial/executive board. It was with those intentions that Her Majesty’s Court Service (HMCS, later to merge with the tribunal service to form HMCTS) was created and the Framework document laid before Parliament.

While the 2006 Canadian report was ultimately cool on the partnership model, seeing it as a guaranteed way for gridlock or executive control by another name, the judiciary saw it as the best possible solution. By recognising the ultimate interdependence of the judiciary and executive in court administration, it was envisaged that the two could build a working relationship based on mutual trust.

The judges might have been right to be optimistic; the Swedish court service (Domstolsverket) has long operated on much the same basis with a significant degree of success.

New CTS – will judges run the courts?

Regrettably, leaked correspondence between the Lord Chief Justice and the Justice Secretary seems to indicate that that optimism has failed. In an attached note, Lord Justice Gross wrote that ‘the judiciary has for some time been concerned that continuing with the present model for HMCTS, both in governance and financial terms, was not an attractive option for the long term.’ Instead, the judiciary imagine a new court and tribunal service (“new CTS”).

But what would this new CTS look like and where are the judiciary trying to move to? The telling phrase comes later on in Lord Justice Gross’ note when he says that ‘The Chief Executive should be accountable, on a day to day basis, to the board and, in respect of broader matters of policy affecting the judiciary, to the LCJ.’ Note the omission of the Lord Chancellor; the Ministry of Justice is to be only ‘residually involved.’

This is more closely aligned to what the Canadian report would describe as a limited judicial autonomy and commission model. In this model, judges take responsibility for court administration, but backed by a commission independent of both the judiciary and executive. That commission could be used for a range of purposes; resolving disputes between the judiciary and executive over the court service, negotiating a budget or, in what seems to be the case with New CTS, safeguarding the judiciary against being drawn into political matters and day-to-day administration.

While such a model seems superficially attractive, the judiciary may get more than they bargained for with a New CTS. The Courts face two major tasks in the coming years even without the budgetary constraints the financial crisis has imposed. First, there is an ageing court estate that still suffers from some of the problems Dr. Beeching found in the 1960s. Family practitioners and judges need only think about the problems at the Principal Registry on High Holborn to understand the seriousness of the problem. Secondly, there is the procurement of major IT systems, an issue that has defeated everyone from HMRC to the Department for Work and Pensions. Judicial independence depends not just on a statutory guarantee, but a cultural perception (some might call it a mystique) of judges being above politics and above being mere managers of a public service. The impact of a failed IT system or a contested court closure might be enough to shatter that image, because they involve intensely political questions. The idea that there can be any neutral path that protects the judiciary might prove to be a fantasy.

Do the judiciary want to risk that perception in exchange for new powers over the court service? Might it be better to try and reinvigorate HMCTS? These are questions the judiciary need to be asking themselves seriously as the future of the court service is decided in the coming months. They may find that there’s no need to risk so much for what they want to achieve.

Northern Ireland chief justice to confront critics on bail decisions

15th March 2013

The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan has given a rare TV interview designed to take the heat out of allegations of partiality between unionists and nationalists in granting bail. He is offering to explain the basis of recent decisions to the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and is making himself available to his most prominent critic, the Democratic Unionist First Minister of the powersharing Executive Peter Robinson. The meeting was in fact pre-arranged but will now take on a more urgent character. His private secretary had earlier sent a letter to the Assembly   explaining that in bail decisions  judges carefully weigh the risks – such as a risk of flight, likelihood of committing further offences, interfering with witnesses and preservation of public order – against the rights of the untried accused.

“It is essential that they are free to do this independently and without being subject to external influence.”

Now the chief justice has widened his response to add the offer of an appearance before Assembly members and a meeting with the First Minister if he still wants one. As a direct response to a running controversy this move is unprecedented and as I’ll argue shortly, carries risks which Morgan himself will be aware of.

Even post- Troubles Northern Ireland politics is still largely a zero sum game. In this case unionists are up in arms at bail being denied to two ring leaders of sporadic protests at the decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days for flying the Union Jack above the City Hall. One of them Willie Frazer attracts both sympathy and hostility. Four family members including his father, all of them members of the security forces, were killed by the IRA over 10 years. He is head of a movement called FAIR,  Families Acting for Innocent (unionist) families  which campaigns for justice for victims of the Troubles  but specialises in provocative demonstrations and comments.   He was refused bail on March 1. At another hearing when bail was refused to another alleged loyalist agitator Jamie Bryson, the judge hit out against “ill informed debate” about bail decisions. This attracted the comment of “ judicial arrogance “ from a DUP minister.

Meanwhile, switching sides,  two prominent republicans in south Armagh  were  granted bail in connection with demonstrations eight years ago in favour of the ( not quite disbanded ) IRA which had been held responsible  for the notorious  murder of a Belfast man Robert McCartney in 2005. Despite a McCartney family campaign which reached Downing St and the Oval Office, IRA omerta  has held. The arrests of the two men Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes were attacked by Sinn Fein politicians as “ political policing”  to  counter balance the actions against loyalists. Unionists immediately claimed partiality in deciding bail between republican and loyalists.

I accept that there are grounds for interesting speculation about how and why bail has been granted or refused but this has little to do with the judiciary.

Why charge Hughes and Wilson with IRA membership and encouraging a proscribed organisation in a demo that happened eight years ago? Is this a real new lead in the MCartney case? It doesn’t feel like it but who can tell at this stage? If there is no fire behind the smoke this might be seen as an unnecessarily provocative move just as the very moment a dissident republican attack had been foiled.

Why wait so long to lift the loyalists Frazer and Bryson? That one is easier to speculate about – because it’s better to exploit a lull (if that’s what is it is ) in the flags protest. But we’re unlikely to get straight answers to such questions and certainly not from the judiciary. Answers in some form may emerge from the PSNI and the DPP if charges are proceeded with.

Although the judges – and of course the police and the DPP – are now being attacked by both sides, this is not a full blown crisis between the politicians and the criminal justice system.  It even represents a sort of progress.  Republicans now argue for fair treatment from the criminal justice system rather than rejecting it altogether. What is happening is a symptom of the tensions created by an underlying shift in power between unionism and nationalism as a result of growing nationalist numbers and the  implementation of the equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.  From time to time there is controversy over where fairness lies and the criminal justice system is caught in the middle.

In an arid zero sum debate –  unionist loss is republican gain or vice versa – the judiciary has boldly moved to assert its good faith and educate the politicians in an impartial justice system which like any other body can make mistakes. The risk the chief justice is taking is that is that he may unwittingly feed an appetite for routine explanations of verdicts and sentences and produce disillusion and even louder complaints when he refuses. This could turn  the judiciary into what he and his colleagues greatly fear, a political football.   Much hangs on Northern Ireland’s politicians behaving responsibly to prevent the judiciary being sucked into their zero sum game.

2. Judges and the European Convention; or we need to talk Abu Qatada!

This post is part two of a dialogue with Brian Walker on the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Brian raises three points that deserve close attention. Firstly, what is the status of the relationship between the ECtHR and Britain? Secondly, why do cases take so very long to get to Strasbourg? Thirdly, what can be done when British political and moral norms conflict substantially with the decisions made by the ECtHR – can Britain ignore Strasbourg? I will look at this problem through the prism of the Abu Qatada case in particular.

1. What is the status of the European Court of Human Rights in Britain?

The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty signed in 1950 which contains a bill of rights (such as the right to life and the right to a fair trial) that each Government that ratifies the Convention promises to protect and to respect. The role of the ECtHR is to enforce the Convention. Individuals who feel that their Convention rights have been violated by a signatory state may take a case to the ECtHR. None of this has anything to do with the EU, although the two are very often confused which leads to the Convention system suffering by association with the desperately bad press the EU gets in Britain.

Decisions by international courts such as the ECtHR bind Britain in international law but not in domestic law and it is possible for the two systems to conflict. If there is a conflict, international law requires that Britain change its domestic law but it is for individual countries to choose how they resolve these conflicts. Because of the way our system of government works, it is for the Government and Parliament to solve the problem – generally through legislation. The role of the courts in our system is simply to obey whatever legislation is passed by Parliament. As a result British courts are not obliged to follow the decisions of the ECtHR directly.

There is of course a ‘but’. The Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 changed this situation somewhat by incorporating the European Convention into British law. Parliament enacted the HRA to allow people in Britain to make rights-based arguments in Britain. For the first time British domestic courts were empowered to take account of the human rights in the Convention in their decisions. I said above that it is for individual countries to choose how to apply international law in their own legal systems; the HRA was the means chosen by Britain to do so, an independent decision made by Parliament. Prior to the HRA, British cases with human rights elements tended to go to the Court in much larger volumes than from other countries because Britain had no domestic human rights legislation and so the courts could not protect rights as such directly. With the HRA human rights became domesticated: the bill of rights contained in the Convention is now also a bill of rights in domestic British law. We can truthfully, if a bit mischievously in light of current debate, call it a British Bill of Rights (one deserving of capitalisation).

The HRA states (in section 2(1)) that British courts are obliged to ‘take into account’ decisions made by the ECtHR. What does this mean and how can two of our most senior judges disagree about it? This goes back in part to the fact that we are dealing with two independent systems of law – international law and British law – that we are trying to fit together. From the perspective of international law decisions of the ECtHR bear directly upon the country to which they are addressed. So if the court decides that Italy must allow prisoners to vote the judgment of the court is addressed to Italy and no one else. Further, and unlike most British domestic courts, the ECtHR is not obliged to follow its own precedent. It can and occasionally does reverse itself. So a judgment that is made against Italy in one case might not necessarily be made against Britain in similar circumstances. An interesting feature of the ECtHR’s approach is that it applies what it calls a ‘margin of appreciation’ and a doctrine of proportionality in its decisions. It acknowledges that culture and moral norms are not quite the same in all the countries that are party to the Convention and that the way in which human rights are applied and realised may reasonably vary from country to country.

Against these facts we can set the practical reality that the ECtHR generally does follow its own precedents and so previous decisions of the ECtHR are strongly persuasive for all signatories to the Convention. Put simply if the Court decides in a case against Italy that prisoners should have the vote, it is probably going to decide the same in a case involving Britain. So there are good practical reasons to comply with judgments of the ECtHR even if they are not specifically addressed to Britain.

Here we return to British domestic law and the HRA and we can, I hope, begin to see an answer – or at least why the question does not admit of a straightforward answer. When Brian refers to Lord Phillips and Lord Judge disagreeing in front of the House of Lords Constitution Committee about whether British courts must follow the ECtHR they are really taking slightly different views about what is important. When Lord Phillips points out that, in the end Strasbourg ‘will win’ I take him to be making the practical and prudential point that the British courts should follow the case law of the ECtHR because if they don’t there will ultimately be an appeal by a disappointed litigant to Strasbourg which Britain is likely to lose, leading to Britain being obliged (in international law) to fix the problem (no doubt after a wasteful and rather expensive delay of several years). He is not saying that the HRA obliges British courts to follow the ECtHR as a matter of law, merely that it is better all-round if they generally do so. When Lord Judge says that once the British courts have taken account of the decisions of the ECtHR they are not actually obliged to follow them he is stating the legal position: section 2(1) of the HRA obliges British courts simply to take account of these decisions. Neither British law nor international law requires the courts to go any further (remember that a decision that is not directly addressed to the UK does not directly bind the UK).

So what this boils down to is that following the ECtHR is not simply a legal question. It is also a policy question and one that does not admit of easy resolution. What is not a matter of doubt is that the United Kingdom has a duty in international law to comply with the European Convention and decisions of the ECtHR that are addressed directly to it. To say, as the Lord Chancellor did on 22 November before the Constitutional Committee, that parliamentary sovereignty supersedes the rulings of the ECtHR is incorrect. We are dealing with two separate legal systems. The fact that Parliament may choose to disobey the international legal obligation created by an ECtHR ruling does not extinguish that obligation.

2. Why do cases take so long to get to Strasbourg?

The answer to the first question was complex. This question is mercifully straightforward. Strasbourg takes appeals from 47 different countries and has a backlog of 150,000 applications (half from just four countries: Russia, Turkey, Italy and Romania). The ECtHR has become very popular. Between 1955 and 1998 it received just 45,000 applications but it received 64,500 in 2011 alone. The result is that it can take years to get a decision from the ECtHR. Delay does not just upset politicians – judges are often just as critical of the way the Court processes its caseload.

This problem could be resolved by dealing with the way the Court processes its cases. In April the Council of Europe Conference agreed the Brighton Declaration (partly as a result of significant lobbying from the UK) in which members of the Council agreed to amend the Convention to ensure that the ECtHR deals only with serious violations of human rights rather than trivial ones and to recognise the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation within the text of the Convention.

The agreement made in Brighton, assuming it is implemented, will still not completely eliminate delay. Delay also arises because of the way cases get to the ECtHR in the first place. Applicants must exhaust all remedies in their home country before they can file an appeal to Strasbourg. In Britain this will generally mean that a litigant will have to go all the way the Supreme Court – and lose – before he or she can go to the ECtHR. (Although not always: if the litigant can show that because of settled law they have no prospect of success at home this may not be required.) The legal process in Britain can take a long time, although there are procedures for fast-tracking urgent cases, so this can add to the delay taken to get to a final resolution from Strasbourg.

Finally, delay can be caused by changes in circumstances. In January in the Abu Qatada case (formally Othman v. UK, as Abu Qatada’s real name is Omar Othman), the ECtHR decided that the UK Government could not deport Qatada to Jordan for trial because there was a risk that evidence to be used in his trial was obtained by torture, which would violate his right to a fair trial. Following Othman the Home Secretary obtained assurances from Jordan regarding the trial process and then ordered that Qatada be deported. Qatada’s lawyers then launched an appeal against this last decision to extradite him, which was granted on the basis that the assurances from Jordan were not good enough. Put simply, the facts changed. While it is possible to limit the length of legal proceedings and the number of appeals that may be made on the basis of the same set of facts, where there is a significant change of circumstances it is hard to see how the right to appeal could be curtailed without fundamentally affecting the right to a legal hearing.

3. Can Britain ignore Strasbourg? And would a British Bill of Rights Make any Difference?

No and no. Or at least, not without breaking the law.

Staying with Abu Qatada, the most recent decision affecting his case was made by the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). SIAC was following the Othman decision, but it was doing so in respect of a principle that is so central to modern human rights law that no plausible bill of rights could fail to enshrine it: the prohibition on torture. Othman followed from an older ECtHR decision called Chahal, in which the Court held that Britain couldn’t deport Mr. Chahal to India because there was a real risk that he would be subjected to torture if they did so.

The right not to be subjected to torture is one of the few absolute human rights (perhaps the only absolute right) and it follows from a generally accepted belief that there can be no legitimate reason for torturing anyone. If there can be no legitimate justification for torture it follows that evidence obtained by torture must be obtained illegitimately and so any evidence obtained through torture must be excluded. If the Human Rights Act were replaced with a British Bill of Rights it would also have to respect this principle. Any bill of rights that did not would – and should – be a laughing stock.

If the new bill of rights did not respect these principles, British judges could no longer order British ministers to comply with human rights but the United Kingdom would still be obliged in international law to comply with decisions made against it by the ECtHR. It is true that it might not be easy to force the UK to comply with its obligations if the Government set its face against doing so. But this is not the same as saying that the legal obligation would cease to exist. The Government would find itself under domestic and international political pressure to comply and the Government did indeed comply with the original Chahal case and all the other judgments made against it by the ECtHR prior to the enactment of the HRA.

4. What happens now?

The Qatada case has dragged on for a very long time and there are two ways of looking at the problem. The first is that the courts, including the ECtHR, are repeatedly frustrating the will of the UK Government to remove a dangerous terrorist from Britain. The other way of looking at it is that the Government has quixotically pursued extradition to Jordan as a solution again and again in the face of objections that the trial process in Jordan is simply unsafe because of the use of torture. Previously it pursued internment until the House of Lords ruled that that was also unacceptable. There is another option: try him in Britain. The things of which Abu Qatada are accused by the Government (involvement in and direction of international terrorism) are certainly crimes in Britain. Allegations in the public domain suggest that there is the possibility that he could be charged with conspiracy to commit some fairly serious crimes, if nothing else. If he were convicted of them there would be no human rights obstacle to his being imprisoned for a very long time, perhaps for life. The difficulty appears to be that some of the evidence is secret and either too weak to secure a conviction or too sensitive to be made public (or both). Without being privy to the information it is impossible to know whether the Government’s claim is legitimate: we cannot know whether the judgment that prosecution is impossible is reasonable, although a succession of Home Secretaries and others seem to have been convinced that it is. But the security services have not historically had these kinds of difficulties in prosecuting Northern Irish terrorism. Indeed as the layers of secrecy have gradually been peeled away from the awful decades of conflict in Northern Ireland one thing that has become apparent is just how thoroughly the various terrorist groups were riddled with informers and spies seeking intelligence and evidence for prosecution. This appears to have continued with the dissident remnants of those organisations. Why can he not be prosecuted for terrorism in Britain?

But we need not go even that far. Has Qatada never been caught speeding, or jaywalking, or even stealing a library book? Famously, the US authorities eventually caught up with Al Capone by laying charges of tax evasion against him. Why has Britain not tried something similar against such an allegedly dangerous man? Put another way, are the ECtHR and – to a lesser extent – the British legal system taking the blame for the failure by the Government to deal sensibly with the problem posed by Qatada and a small group of dangerous men in a similar position?

In the last few days the Home Secretary has lodged an appeal against SIAC’s decision to stop Qatada’s extradition. Rightly or wrongly the ball is now back with the courts and, as Brian suggests, they will need to tread very carefully.

1.The judges need to respond to Chris Grayling’s challenge to the authority of the European Court of Human Rights

This is Part One of a personal dialogue between a former political journalist and a lawyer over the increasingly politicised question of how the UK upholds human rights law. In particular it focuses on the role of the European Court of Human Rights which is being blamed for delay and perverse decisions. While in this post I do not support the simplistic case against the ECtHR   I argue that the independent judiciary ignores it at its peril, even while the political parties are in deadlock over what to do. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m the ex political journalist. Part 2 of the dialogue is by my legally qualified colleague, Patrick O’Brien.    

There is a real problem about the roles of the European Court of Human Rights and Convention which judges and lawyers who live with it should not dismiss as mere ignorance and political bigotry. By itself the usual retort that such questioning  only encourages dictators and damages Britain’s human rights reputation no longer carries the day. In high profile cases, appeals to the Court have lengthened the process of obtaining decisions and  have delivered results which distance justice from current political and public opinion. More significantly, the Court’s very status in our system is being questioned.  The new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, the first non- lawyer to hold the office, wishes  to tilt the traditional balance between the legal and political parts of the constitution in favour of asserting parliamentary sovereignty above the authority of the Convention and the Court and to some extent, British judges.

Is there a sense in which the ECtHR is the “real” Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, as many people seem to believe?  If it is not, why do we pay so much attention to it and why does it attract so much political ire? Why does it seem to be so difficult to correct misunderstandings about the Court and the Convention upon which its rulings are based? Can we clear up once for all, when we comply with its rulings and when not?  Could we even ignore it altogether? Surely the Human Rights Act was intended to deliver rights based justice more quickly and more sensitively to British public opinion?

This is a problem which Parliament will not solve any time soon. With an all-party Commission on a  Bill of Rights unlikely to heal a coalition split over the future of human rights law when it reports shortly, could the judiciary solve at least part of the problem themselves?

The ECtHR’s distance from British political opinion was evident over prisoners’ voting rights, when the court handed down a decision which was compatible with much practice on the continent but furiously opposed by the Conservatives with tacit support across the floor. This ruling has led to Grayling  presenting for consideration  the option of Parliament defying the Court and substituting new legislation which could create a constitutional impasse.  To be fair, it is hard to see what British judges could do to prevent it. Of this more later.

Judges however may be able to do something about the number of appeals in controversial cases. In September the outgoing Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge expressed “real fury” that it had taken eight years to extradite the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza to the US. and gave a broad hint that  the ECtHR  was partly to  blame.

“ I do not think, if you go through the processes, you will discover that the delays in that particular case, or in many like it, are actually to be levelled at the doors of the courts here. I cannot remember when — I was one of the judges who decided that case in the extradition proceedings. Was it 2007? So far as we were concerned, that was the end of it. That is really all I can say.”

But was it all he could say? Answering a different question, on whether in certain important cases the “real” Supreme Court was in Strasbourg, he replied :

“Well, I do not agree with the premise. The Human Rights Act is absolutely unequivocal in its language .  It requires our courts to “take account” of decisions of the European Court in Strasbourg, and, properly applied, that means that the decisions of the European Court are not necessarily binding on our courts. It is inevitable that cases which involve the interpretation of the Convention will end up — go to the European Court for decision. But, as I said, the Human Rights Act itself is quite unequivocal in its language — and, if I may say so, that is as it should be.” 

Another cause célèbre is Abu Qatada. A succession of Home Secretaries have been made to look like fools. In this area, ministers have become critics of the system more than its guardians. This may not be the fault of the courts alone but the timeline of the Abu Qatada case is surely unacceptable. Not only is the Court’s efficiency but its very role is questioned and not only by Conservatives.

Consider a couple of prominent responses to the Abu Qatada case.  The reaction from the voluble Conservative backbencher Peter Bone is not untypical. Here, as clearly as it could possibly be put, is a bundle of misunderstandings and prejudices about the European Court of Human Rights and its relationship to British Courts.  Even so, does Mr Bone have a point?

Enough is enough – put this terrorist on a plane and send him home and worry about the European Court afterwards.

.The highest court in this land, our Supreme Court, has said he can go back. Now, if the highest court in this land says he can go back, then he can go back.

We should not be kow-towing to this ‘Mickey Mouse’ European court.

More worrying because rather more sophisticated is the reaction to the prisoners’ voting rights decision from the former solicitor general Edward Garnier QC, to Joshua Rozenberg on BBC Radio 4’s Law In Action:

If this were a decision of the Supreme Court in this country, or the high court or the court of appeal, I would feel a lot more uncomfortable, both as a politician and as a lawyer. Because it is this interesting, and strange, and somewhat small ‘p’, political body known as the European Court of Human Rights are from all sorts of different backgrounds, political and legal, the imperative to bend the knee is less.

 Adhering to judgments of a court to which we are signed up by treaty is an aspect of the rule of law, which we must obey. And we can’t pick and choose the laws we want to obey. But, the prime minister has a choice to make and I suspect that the choice he will make is: ‘Thank you, Mr Attorney, for your very careful advice, but I can’t quite hear you.’”

From a former law officer, this seems like breathtaking casuistry and cynicism to this ordinary citizen. No wonder that public opinion is becoming exasperated with the criminal justice system when ECtHR decisions can be received on a take- it- or leave- it basis one day and a matter of painful compliance the next. Just as depressing is that the point doesn’t seem to have clocked with the legal establishment who seem to accept such arbitrariness as a matter of course.

What sounds like more nudge- nudge, wink- winking was apparent on 22 November when the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a joint committee of MPs and peers to consider three options, two  a choice between  limited prisoners’ voting rights and the third, retaining an outright voting ban. On the advice of the Attorney General he personally forbore from recommending his ideal last option of defving the ECtCR, because this could mean he was breaking the law, unthinkable for a Lord Chancellor as a leading guardian of respect for the law and  judicial independence. Later he speculated that others ministers might be similarly bound by the ministerial code but the rest of  Parliament  he claimed, could act differently. The episode may still turn out to be  no more than a  melodramatic demonstration against an ECtHR ruling loathed by the Conservatives and which indeed makes the Prime Minister “physically sick.”  But the world has been put on notice that a majority Conservative government would wish significantly to curtail the role of the ECtHR in the British system.

The widening gap between the “legal” and “political” understandings of the status of the ECtHR could not have been more clearly expressed than in following exchanges between Grayling and prominent lawyers at his appearance before the Lords Constitution Committee the previous day.

Lord Pannick :… This country signed up to the convention and it might be thought therefore we have a legal obligation as a matter of international law to comply with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights—not just those that we agree with, but all of them, and not to do so, to defy the European Court, is simply a breach of the rule of law.

 Chris Grayling: It is certainly the case that we have an obligation to comply with the rulings of the European Court but, as we also know, parliamentary sovereignty supersedes those rulings…. Ultimately, Parliament can say, “We are not prepared to accept that.”…

 Lord Goldsmith: Can I follow that up please, Lord Chancellor, because I am a little taken aback by the way you have expressed that? The point that Lord Pannick was putting to you, with which I agree, is that the obligations that we assumed as a country when we signed up to the European convention are not political obligations, they are legal obligations, and we are therefore obliged to follow them

 Chris Grayling: You would be aware that any legislative change that results from a court decision has to pass through Parliament. You talk about the legal position: the legal position as set out by Lord Hoffmann, as acknowledged and set out by the Attorney General two weeks ago, is that Parliament has the right to exercise sovereignty and to decide not to follow the instructions of the European Court of Human Rights. That is the legal position. That is a matter for Parliament to decide whether it wants to follow that route.

 Lord Goldsmith: I do not agree with that as a statement of the legal position, but that may be the difference between us.

How will the judiciary respond to Grayling? Are they in any position to present a united front?  They must be worried. Interpretations of Strasbourg decisions vary. British courts are obliged to “take account” of the Court’s rulings; but what does “take account” mean?  In his paper “Smoke and Mirrors: the Human Rights Act and the impact of the Strasbourg case law”, Richard Clayton QC observed:

When Lord Phillips and Lord Judge gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Constitution in October 2011, Lord Phillips expressed the view that in the end, Strasbourg was always going to win because we have the HRA. Lord Judge on the other hand stressed that it is at least arguable that having taken account of the decisions of the ECtHR  our courts are not bound to follow them. Lord Judge’s views were given strong support by Lord Irvine the former Lord Chancellor who presided over the enactment of the HRA, in his recent lecture, A British Interpretation of Convention Rights; and in February 2012 ,the Supreme Court appeared to welcome the possibility of going beyond the Strasbourg case law.

In his Kingsland lecture a year ago, the former Conservative leader Michael Howard said he didn’t think it would be “enough” even if British efforts succeeded to extend the “margin of discretion” for national governments to interpret the Convention. Howard called for  “something more comprehensive”, such as that hinted at by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve for a British Bill of Rights to carry out a “rebalancing” of the Human Rights Act. Howard went on to observe:

Little wonder that we have already heard demands for parliamentary input into the selection of the next British judge to be nominated to the European Court of Human Rights. If present trends continue it can only be a matter of time that similar demands are made in the context of the appointment of judges to our domestic courts. After all, this is what happens in countries like the United States where the judges exercise similar power.

What effect would such a development have on judicial independence? Is it not time that the judges got their act together on the ECtHR? The prospects for Parliament acting soon are not good.  In its report due out by the end of year, the Commission on a British Bill of Rights is unlikely to reconcile conflicting views on the scope of human rights.  A  Conservative majority government would probably try to enact a British Bill but it could be a long haul to reach the sort of consensus needed for a constitutional measure of this kind.

In the meantime with a new President of the Supreme Court in post and a new Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales imminent, is it too much to hope for, that the judges might steal a march on the politicians and reach greater clarity among themselves?

Over to you, Patrick.  

   

Judicial Independence in Northern Ireland

On 6 November the Judicial Independence Project held the sixth in our series of practitioner seminars on ‘Judicial Independence in Northern Ireland’. The series is run under Chatham House Rule but we have prepared a short note which is available on our website. Read it here.

A strong theme that emerged from the seminar was that the current system for administering the court system in Northern Ireland is an interim one – a step on the road to something more permanent – although one that has fortuitously turned out to work quite well. Most participants felt that something like the Irish or Scottish models for court administration, in which the court system is run by judges with a high degree of independence from the legislature and executive, should be the ultimate destination. However, there are practical problems with this because the judiciary in Northern Ireland is so small and it may be difficult for them to devote greater time to administration.

The appointment of judges is also a key issue in Northern Ireland. At present the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission (NIJAC) is judge-led, in large part because the main political parties did not trust each other with the appointment of judges. Some participants felt that this created an accountability problem for NIJAC and that there should be moves towards greater political oversight, although there was strong disagreement on this point.

The Crime and Courts Bill and the JAC

[Posted on behalf of Graham Gee. This post original appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Group Blog.]

The Crime and Courts Bill resumes its passage through the House of Lords this week. In a post in July, Patrick O’Brien offered some thoughts on proposals in the Bill on judicial appointments. I agree with Patrick’s analysis and merely want to add some thoughts on the limited changes relating to the Judicial Appointments Commission proposed by the Bill.

(1) One of the chief complaints of officials who operate under the CRA’05 is that it is overly prescriptive. The Crime and Court Bill’s key proposal on the JAC seeks to inject flexibility into the arrangements relating to the JAC’s composition and is fairly uncontroversial. Under Schedule 12 CRA, the JAC must have 15 members, comprising a lay chair, a further 5 lay members, 5 judicial members, a lay justice, a tribunal member, a barrister and a solicitor. The JAC recognizes that there is a case for “introducing a mechanism to allow flexibility into [its] size”. For example, it was envisaged that the JAC would in time assume responsibility for selecting lay magistrates. The MoJ has since made clear that this will not happen, raising the question of whether it is necessary for a lay magistrate to be a statutory member of the JAC. The Bill therefore seeks to inject flexibility into the JAC’s composition by requiring the Lord Chancellor to make provision about its composition via regulations agreed with the Lord Chief Justice. There are also uncontroversial proposals in the Bill on the role of the JAC’s vice-chair and the selection and term of commissioners.

(2) What bears emphasis is how little the Bill impinges directly on the JAC. This is surprising since, according to interviews conducted as part of a project on The Politics of Judicial Independence, relations between the JAC and the MoJ were so rocky between 2006-10 that thought was given to abolishing the JAC, and either brining judicial appointments back “in-house” in the MoJ or shifting responsibility to the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Given, then, that its very future was in doubt two years ago, what explains the fact that the JAC emerges relatively unscathed in the Bill? One explanation points to the significant personnel changes that have occurred since 2010 within both the JAC and the MoJ. Relations were rockiest when Jack Straw was Lord Chancellor and Baroness Prashar chaired the JAC. At the MoJ, not only are we onto our third Lord Chancellor since the start of 2010, there has been significant staff changes at all levels as well. Meanwhile the JAC has a new leadership team (headed by Chris Stephens as the chair and Nigel Reeder as Chief Executive) and an entirely new slate of Commissioners. There is, in essence, a “new” JAC. The question that arises is how willing is the new JAC to challenge the MoJ. For example, a constant source of tension between the JAC and MoJ has been the Lord Chancellor’s imposition of additional, non-statutory criteria for judicial office. Typically, the non-statutory criteria require applicants to demonstrate prior judicial experience. The “old” JAC routinely challenged the use of these criteria, arguing that it unnecessarily restricted the diversity of applicants. Will the “new” JAC be equally willing to challenge the Lord Chancellor on the use of non-statutory criteria?

(3) The Bill proposes to transfer the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility for making appointments below the High Court to the Lord Chief Justice. The proposal is for the JAC to make recommendations to the LCJ, who will have the power to decide whether to accept them. As Robert Hazell, Kate Malleson and I haveargued, this proposal is misguided. While there might be a case for claiming that at the lower levels of the judiciary, the involvements of the Lord Chancellor is not required on grounds of political accountability, the goal of improving judicial diversity requires the continued involvement of the Lord Chancellor. Experience in other countries suggests that diversity does not happen automatically as the composition of the legal profession changes. Rather, it requires political will to drive forward changes, some of which might not be well received by the judiciary. Removing the Lord Chancellor removes the scope for this political will.

In the context of this blogpost, what interests me is whether the proposed transfer of the appointment power from the Lord Chancellor to the LCJ might change the relationship between the JAC and the LCJ. There have been tensions from time to time between the JAC and the judiciary. It was significant, however, that the LCJ offered support—behind the scenes and in public—when relations with the MoJ were rockiest, highlighting the LCJ’s role as a guardian of the independence of the JAC from the Government. It seems almost inevitable that relations between JAC and the LCJ will change once the LCJ must decide whether or not to accept the recommendations for judicial office made by the JAC. Relations may be shaped in part by how frequently the LCJ rejects or requests reconsideration of the JAC’s recommendations. Since 2006, the JAC has made nearly 3,000 recommendations, with the Lord Chancellor rejecting or requesting reconsideration only 5. (These figures are for the High Court and below). It will be interesting to see whether the LCJ is as sparing with the use of these powers.

(4) Much of the debate on the Bill in the House of Lords has concentrated on the proposal that the Lord Chancellor is to be included in the selection panels for the offices of the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the UK Supreme Court. The price for inclusion on the panel is loss of the veto at the end of the appointment process currently enjoyed by the Lord Chancellor. A constellation of peers from across the political and legal communities oppose this proposal lest it lead to what they deem an inappropriate level of political involvement on senior appointments. (For the second reading debate, see here and here; for the committee stage, see here and here). Comparatively little attention has been paid to whether transfer of the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility for appointments below the High Court to the Lord Chief Justice will lead to excessive judicial influence on appointments to the lower ranks. This proposal to transfer responsibility to the LCJ must be read alongside the already extensive judicial influence on JAC-run selection exercises: (i) five commissioners on the JAC are judges; (ii) before the Lord Chancellor must consult with the LCJ before directing the JAC to begin a selection exercise; (iii) each selection panel contains a judge, who is normally from the jurisdiction to which the appointment relates; (iv) judges draft the case studies that form part of the selection process; (v) judges write references for applicants; and (vi) towards the end of the process, the JAC must consult with the LCJ about the candidate that it intends to recommend to the Lord Chancellor. The influence of (vi) should not be underestimated: there were suggestions that the former Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, would not appoint those who had not been approved by the LCJ. Judicial influence, in short, runs deep throughout every stage of the appointment process. To be clear, judges have a legitimate interest and important role to play in appointments. However, there is an argument to be made that there is already too much judicial influence on JAC-led processes—even before transferring the final appointment power over lower level posts from the Lord Chancellor to the LCJ.

(5) Concerns about the extent of judicial influence on JAC-run selection processes point to the importance of safeguarding the independence of the JAC not merely from the Government, but also from the judiciary. Since judges have a legitimate interest in appointments, and since they inevitably have an important if largely unseen role to play in the selection process, inappropriate judicial influence can be difficult detect and calls for constant vigilance. The risk of judicial capture is real. The primary duty to safeguard the independence of the JAC from inappropriate judicial influence falls on the JAC Chair, leadership team and the Commissioners. The public interest in judicial appointments requires that the JAC is willing and able to resist judicial capture.

Judicial Independence and the Supreme Court

On 3 October the Judicial Independence Project held the fifth in our series of practitioner seminars on ‘Judicial Independence and the Supreme Court’. The seminar was run under Chatham House Rule but we have prepared a short note available on our project website: read the note.

Amongst the points made by contributors was that statistics do not bear out the popular perception that the Supreme Court is exercising more power over the Scottish legal system than was the case prior to Scottish devolution. Although there has been an increase in the volume of cases going from Scotland to the Supreme Court (and its predecessor the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords) the success rate for Scottish appeals was essentially the same as that for other cases under the Appellate Committee, and since the creation of the Supreme Court in 2009 the success rate for Scottish appeals has been notably less than that of others.

There were differing views on appointments to the Supreme Court. The Crime and Courts Bill proposes to remove the Deputy President from the appointment commission for the Court. Some regarded this as negative: the justices of the Court have the best knowledge about what the court needs in new appointments. Others disagreed, arguing that while this might be true, no part of government in a democracy should be self-replicating.

The Blunkett Test

Image

When the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was being drafted, nearly a decade ago now, one of the issues considered was referred to as ‘The Blunkett Test’: how would the new arrangements work if David Blunkett – a non-lawyer known at the time for his willingness to engage in publicity-friendly criticism of judges and judicial decisions if it made political sense – were made Lord Chancellor? The abstract question was about how to design the new constitutional arrangements so that they could survive bad personal relationships as well as good.

The Blunkett Test has so far been academic as the new style post-2005 Lord Chancellors (Lord Falconer, Jack Straw and Ken Clarke) have all been lawyers with obvious natural sympathy for the judiciary. As a result of yesterday’s government reshuffle we may now see something like the Blunkett Test played out for real. Ken Clarke, perceived to be too far to the left of his party on issues like human rights and prisons, has been replaced as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor by Chris Grayling, perceived to be further to the right on these points. But it’s not Grayling’s political attitudes that might be problematic but rather his status as a non-lawyer and a politician ‘on the up’ as Joshua Rozenberg puts it in an interesting analysis. Clarke, a barrister and an old-style political heavyweight with (one assumes) nothing left to prove in career terms, had little incentive to score political points at the expense of judges. Grayling might be tempted in his new position to make his mark by, for example, criticising sentencing practices and by doing so sour the very close working relationship he will need to maintain with senior judges. A young ambitious politician in the role is, indeed, exactly what judges have feared since 2005.

Lawyers have an unfortunate tendency to assume that non-lawyers cannot be trusted with the law and have difficulty understanding legal culture. Grayling has been in the job barely 24 hours and as such is an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, the transition will be worth watching. Since 2005, the division of responsibilities between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice has seemed to work out as a sort of ‘good cop, bad cop’ with the incumbent Home Secretary making tough noises about terrorism, rights and so on and the incumbent Justice Secretary making more emollient sounds about the importance of the rule of law and due process. If the new Justice Secretary is more naturally sympathetic to the Home Office position, this may alter the balance.

Finally, from a constitutional perspective it is interesting that the role of Lord Chancellor has attracted so little official comment. Grayling is the first non-lawyer to be appointed Justice Secretary and the first non-lawyer to be appointed Lord Chancellor since the sixteenth century. Yet even the Ministry of Justice press release referred only to Grayling’s new role as Justice Secretary and made no mention of the position of Lord Chancellor. This seems to suggest that the convention that the Justice Secretary should also be Lord Chancellor is now well established, and perhaps also that the ancient but now diminished role of Lord Chancellor is being subsumed within the modern role of the Justice Secretary.

Judicial Appointments and the Crime and Courts Bill 2012

As part of the Judicial Independence Project we have prepared a short briefing document and comment on some of the changes to judicial appointments envisaged in the new Crime and Courts Bill 2012. The document is available here. The main points are that:

  • The stated philosophy behind Part 2 of the Bill – of leaving statements of principle on the face of the Bill and moving detailed technical provisions into statutory instrument – is welcome. However, as the Bill currently stands this intent is not realised and the distinction between matters that should remain in the Constitutional Reform Act and matters that should be left to statutory instrument is erratic.
  • The provisions governing the Lord Chancellor’s role in the appointment of the President of the UK Supreme Court and of the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales are ambiguous as key points of principle are left for regulations to be made by the Lord Chancellor.
  • It appears that the Lord Chancellor may choose to sit on the selection bodies or may choose not to do so. Only in the former case will he lose his veto over an appointment but in either case it appears that he retains the right to compel the selecting body to reconsider its chosen candidate. In circumstances where the Lord Chancellor sits on the selecting body, his retention of a power to compel that body to reconsider its decision is inappropriate.
  • The rule prohibiting the President and Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court from sitting on selection commissions to appoint their successors is welcome. However, as it is currently expressed it appears to leave open the possibility that other office holders (for example the Lord Chief Justice) may be involved in the selection of their successors. It would be better to enshrine in the Bill a general prohibition against an incumbent or retiring judge sitting on a panel to select his or her successor.
  • The Bill as it stands has the potential to add further complexity to an already extremely confusing piece of legislation by adding new actors (the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals) and a new layer of rules (in the form of statutory instruments) to the appointments process. In a piece of legislation with constitutional significance this is unwelcome and measures should be taken to express the changes envisaged in a manner that leaves them reasonably accessible to the layperson.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,108 other followers