06:16, September 28 81 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-28 06:16:03
Secular group calls for judges' Anglican service to be scrapped

The annual Anglican service at Westminster Abbey marking the official opening of the legal year undermines judicial impartiality and should be scrapped, equality campaigners have said.

The National Secular Society has written to the lord chancellor, David Lidington, calling for next Monday’s ceremony to be cancelled on the grounds that it perpetuates the medieval belief that church and state are closely intertwined.

The ceremony ends in one of the defining images of the British constitution: judges in their wigs, purple-edged gowns and gilt regalia processing from the Abbey across the road into parliament for the lord chancellor’s breakfast.

The service is conducted by a senior Anglican clergyman and attended by judges, politicians and senior lawyers.

The society campaigns to end religious advantages under the law. In its letter to Lidington, who is also the justice secretary, it argues: “Judges’ services add nothing to judicial competence and serve only to privilege Christianity and undermine the impartiality of the judiciary.

“They are also a burden on the taxpayer. It cannot be in the interests of justice that these services continue and we ask that you initiate their ending. Not only is the judges’ service incompatible with the generally accepted objective of achieving and demonstrating diversity in the judiciary, it also raises serious questions about the perception of neutrality and independence of the judiciary.”

The society says it has lodged a freedom of information request asking the Ministry of Justice how many judges’ services were held across the UK in 2016 and how much the department has spent on them over the last five years. It points to a similar service held at York Minister each year.

The need to separate church and state is not entirely theoretical, the letter adds, citing the case of the disgraced bishop Peter Ball, who evaded justice for more than 20 years until he was jailed in October 2015 for sexual abuse.

There have been previous objections from individual lawyers opposed to judges bending their knee in public before an Anglican altar but they have so far failed to persuade ministers to cancel the ancient ceremony. Services for Catholic judges have in the past been held at Westminster Cathedral.

Attendance at the Westminster Abbey service is not compulsory for judges.

The Ministry of Justice declined to comment. In 2013, when the issue last arose, an MoJ spokesperson said: “We believe concerns about possible religious bias resulting from the judges’ service are completely unfounded.

“On appointment every judge is required to take both the oath of allegiance to the crown and the judicial oath which requires them ‘to do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of their realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will’.

“Judges attach the greatest importance to this oath and reach decisions without partiality or bias of any kind, including on matters of religious faith.”