20:12, November 01 56 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-01 20:12:03
Peers warn of low morale in judiciary and call for greater diversity

The dilapidated state of some courts, a shortage of support staff and heavy administrative burdens are depressing the judiciary’s morale, a parliamentary report has warned.

The Lords constitution select committee has also suggested that the mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges should be lifted to ease the problems of recruitment and retention.

Furthermore, progress on improving diversity on the bench has been limited, the peers said. Law firms, the report suggests, are often barriers to progress since solicitors find it difficult openly to pursue judicial aspirations as it could “result in being marginalised within their firm”.

Those who join the bench after qualifying as chartered legal executives, the committee noted, have not risen far enough. “We see no reason why chartered legal executives who have been appointed as district judges and demonstrate the requisite attributes are unable to achieve promotion beyond the district bench,” it said.

The dispute over cuts to judicial pensions, which led to several hundred judges launching a court challenge, has further undermined morale, the report added.

Peers in effect rebuked the former lord chancellor Liz Truss, for failing to criticise the Daily Mail headline that branded judges in the article 50 Brexit court case ‘Enemies of the People’.

Future office holders must defend the independence of the judiciary, the committee said. “It is imperative that the independence of the judiciary is protected and that it is well-understood by the public,” it added. “This does not impinge on the right of the free press to challenge or to criticise court judgments.

“However, there is a difference between criticism and abuse; between challenging the content of a judgment and attacking the character and integrity of the judge handing down that judgment. In such cases, the lord chancellor’s constitutional duty is clear—as stated in the oath of office, the lord chancellor must defend the independence of the judiciary.

“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.”

Commenting on the report Ann Taylor, chair of the committee, said: “The UK has one of the finest judicial systems in the world. However, we have found an alarming number of factors are currently affecting recruitment to the bench, and we are deeply concerned about the impact they are having on the retention of current judges and the attractiveness of the judiciary as a career for potential applicants.

“To maintain our gold standard legal system we need the best and brightest candidates coming forward for judicial appointment. One of the fundamental principles of our judiciary is its independence and it is the constitutional duty of the lord chancellor to uphold and defend that principle. Judges must be free to decide cases without fear of personal criticism from the media.

“The committee is concerned about the lack of diversity on the bench. It is disappointing that progress on diversity has been limited since our last report, as it is important for both the health and the perception of our legal system that we have a judiciary that is representative of the society it serves.

“We urge the lord chancellorlord chief justice, the Judicial Appointments Commission and the legal profession to monitor progress and look for new ways to improve and encourage diversity.”