House of Lords’ committee ‘seriously concerned’
The House of Lords Constitution Committee has said a number of factors have damaged the attractiveness of taking judicial office, including: insufficient salaries, “creaking” in-court conditions and “unjustified” right-wing press attacks.
The report notes the amalgamation of these factors, and more, leaves the Committee “seriously concerned” about the recruitment of new judges, particularly in the High Court.
In the words of Joshua Rozenberg, writing for Legal Cheek Journal, “the High Court has been running below full strength for some time”. Last year, there were 14 vacancies and six posts were left unfilled. Word on the street is that 19 appointments were approved this year after “up to 25” vacancies were advertised.
The committee, which last week urged for more clarity in statute-making, thinks this recruitment problem is down to a number of factors, pay being one of them. Judges are often drawn from the tops of the barrister and solicitor profession, where multi-million pound earnings are not uncommon. High Court judges get less than £200,000.
Public sector budget restraints mean the committee isn’t hopeful pay will be increased. Instead, it urges the government to address other issues which undermine the attractiveness of the judiciary. Two of the more interesting are working conditions and judges’ relationship with politicians/the media.
On the first, the maintenance of the judicial system was described by committee witnesses as “absolutely creaking”. Ex-Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas noted there are buckets in every area and plaster falling off walls in the “generally dilapidated” court system. The committee, which includes Blackstone Chambers’ Lord Pannick and former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, says “a considerable investment of funds and political energy” will be needed to make the required improvements.
A similarly major concern is how judges are portrayed in the media and their relationship with the government. The importance of both these issues is exemplified neatly by the Miller case, more notably the Daily Mail headline that ran after its conclusion.
The report explains:
“The relationship between the judiciary and the government was not helped by the furore around the case… [Lord Thomas said] that ‘the circuit judges were very concerned and wrote to the Lord Chancellor because litigants in person were coming and saying, ‘You’re an enemy of the people’.”
Though the media is free to criticise judges “there is a difference between criticism and abuse”, and in this case the headline was “unjustified”, the committee concludes.
Judges are unable to defend themselves in the wake of line-crossing media attention and instead the power to do so lies with the Lord Chancellor. At the time this was Liz Truss, who was slammed by lawyers in the wake of the headline going to print for doing, well, nothing.
Stressing how important it is the independence of the judiciary is protected by the Lord Chancellor (now David Lidington), the report says:
“Should members of the judiciary suffer such personal attacks in future, we expect any person holding the office of Lord Chancellor to take a proactive stance in defending them publicly, as they are unable to defend themselves.”