[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.