Lawyers question whether his outburst was unprecedented
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, went on a bit of a mad one this morning.
Giving evidence to the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee on, for example, judicial recruitment and legal aid, Thomas laid into the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, in a way barrister Tim Storrie suggested is unprecedented.
— Tim Storrie (@timstorrie) March 22, 2017
So what exactly did he say? First of all, Thomas launched an excoriating attack against the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), of which Truss is the head, and its approach to the introduction of pre-recorded evidence in criminal trials.
Late last week, it was announced rape victims would be spared in-court cross-examination and could instead put forward evidence recorded in advance.
Though widely reported, Thomas said the MoJ “misunderstood” what was actually being debuted (a small pilot, not a countrywide change of practice). He also admitted he had to write to judges to explain the true position, which he described as “time-consuming”. The MoJ demonstrated “a complete failure to understand the impracticalities” of all this; “very troubling,” he concluded.
Justice Secretary Truss took some flack last year for failing to defend the judiciary against scathing media headlines. The Cabinet minister has since defended her actions, or rather inaction, by saying she was not prepared to tell newspapers what they should write in their headlines.
Truss, in Thomas’ words, is:
[C]ompletely and utterly wrong in the view she takes… We must maintain a free press… but there is a difference between criticism and abuse, and I don’t think that is understood. I don’t think it’s understood either how absolutely essential it is that we are protected.
The judiciary itself could not have spoken out against the media, he told the select committee today, without plunging itself “into political controversy”, so it really was Truss’ job and her duty.
Thomas also candidly revealed today he sought advice from the police during the Brexit litigation turmoil. This was the first time he had to do this in his judicial career. It’s “very wrong” judges had to fear for their safety in this way, he said.
An outburst from the head of the judiciary like this is undeniably shocking and unusual. However, with the Lord Chief Justice due to retire later this year, perhaps this anti-Truss scathe came about thanks to a burst of pre-retirement confidence?
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