Kate Malleson and Graham Gee: Who should have the final say in lower level judicial appointments?

malleson-photo-2010graham-gee-webThe Crime and Courts Bill is making its way through Parliament. As noted in an earlier post, the Bill proposes to pass responsibility for appointing Circuit Judges and District Judges from the Lord Chancellor to the Lord Chief Justice. This represents a potentially significant power shift in judicial appointments, yet it has attracted very little attention. In this post, we outline some of our concerns.

Current Practice

The Judicial Appointments Commission currently selects a candidate for each vacancy on the Circuit and District Bench. The JAC is required by statute to consult with the LCJ about its proposed candidate. After consultation, the JAC recommends a candidate to the Lord Chancellor, who can accept or reject the recommendation, or invite the JAC to reconsider it. In practice, the Lord Chancellor almost always accepts the recommendation of the JAC, with only 5 vetoes from almost 3000 recommendations since 2006.

Recent Lord Chancellors have exhibited little interest in lower level judicial appointments. Jack Straw, for example, described the Lord Chancellor’s role in such appointments as “ridiculous”. Similarly, Ken Clarke described it as “ceremonial and ritualistic”, explaining that neither he nor his officials in the Ministry of Justice were in a position to “second-guess” the recommendations of the JAC because they did not know the candidates.

As successive Lords Chancellors have retreated from involvement with lower level appointments, the views of the LCJ on candidates selected by the JAC have assumed greater importance. Indeed, it was said that Ken Clarke would only accept a recommendation from the JAC that had first been approved by the LCJ.

It is perhaps not surprising that there was widespread support in response to the government’s consultation paper for transferring the final say in lower level judicial appointments from the Lord Chancellor to the LCJ. Many will have concluded, like the Lords’ Constitution Committee, that the change will “promote the independence of the judiciary and increase public confidence in judicial appointments”. The LCJ, after all, is said to be in a better position to understand the particular requirements of judicial office and, thus, to decide whether a person selected by the JAC should be appointed to the bench. We are less confident, however, about whether this change is welcome. We have three main concerns.

Diluting the Executive’s Role and Responsibility

One of the assumptions driving the proposal is that there is no longer a legitimate role for the executive in lower level judicial appointments. This assumption is questionable. The involvement of the Lord Chancellor injects a critical measure of democratic legitimacy into the process of selecting judges. Equally significantly, it encourages the Lord Chancellor to take seriously his or her statutory responsibility for the operation of the appointment system as a whole. Moreover, if democratic accountability is not channeled through the Lord Chancellor, will the LCJ account directly to Parliament for the operation of lower level appointments? If so, does this pose a greater threat to judicial independence than the involvement of a government minister?

Even if it is argued that at the lower ranks involving the Lord Chancellor is not needed on grounds of democracy legitimacy, the goal of improving judicial diversity demands continued ministerial involvement. Experience in the UK and in other countries shows that improving diversity does not happen automatically as the composition of the legal profession changes. Rather, it needs political will to drive forward changes, some of which might not be supported by judges.  While we welcome the amendment introduced in the Lords to place the Lord Chancellor and the LCJ under a statutory duty to encourage judicial diversity, an amendment that mirrors the existing duty placed on the JAC, we worry that removing the Lord Chancellor from lower level appointments removes the opportunity for the exercise of political will to promote greater diversity in the judiciary at all levels.

Excessive Judicial Influence

In an important report published last year, Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson charted the level of judicial influence in senior judicial appointments. Similar concerns can be voiced in respect of lower level appointments. There are currently 5 judges on the JAC. Before instructing the JAC to begin a selection exercise the Lord Chancellor must consult with the LCJ. Each selection panel includes a judge. Judges draft the case studies that form an important part of the selection process. They write references for applicants. Finally, as noted above, the JAC consults with the LCJ about the candidate that it intends to recommend to the Lord Chancellor.

In other words, judges are already heavily involved in selecting their own colleagues. Shifting the formal decision-making power for lower tiers to the LCJ represents a significant extension of judicial influence in ways that might ultimately undermine, rather than bolster, public confidence in the judiciary.

A Changed Relationship between the JAC and LCJ

The proposal to transfer the veto power to the LCJ did not consider the implications of the LCJ more frequently refusing to accept recommendations from the JAC. We should perhaps expect more vetoes given that the rationale for the reform is that the LCJ will be better able to arrive at an informed evaluation of the JAC’s recommended candidate.

There might also be other reasons why the LCJ and the JAC could disagree about a recommendation. If, for example, the JAC decided to implement the tie break provisions under s.159 of the Equality Act 2010 to increase diversity, and if a future LCJ objected to this approach, we could expect to see the veto used more frequently. If such a scenario did arise, would the decision of the LCJ be subject to judicial review? If so, who would hear such a challenge? If the LCJ’s decision is not subject to judicial review, how, if at all, could it be challenged? Moreover, would the LCJ be required to give reasons for his or her decision?

These questions suggest that there are potential pitfalls which have not been thought through. It would not be surprising if the JAC sought to avoid them by only making recommendations likely to secure the approval of the LCJ. This then underscores our earlier concern – that judges potentially have too much influence in judicial appointments.

Finally, the LCJ has to date served as a guardian of the independence of the JAC. During its rocky first five years, the JAC came perilously close to being abolished by the Ministry of Justice; it experienced what one insider described as “a near death experience”. At the time when tensions between JAC and the MoJ were at their greatest, the LCJ spoke out publicly in defence of the JAC. He could do so without any potential conflict of interest because his role in the judicial appointments process was relatively limited. If in the future the LCJ can exercise a veto over the decisions of the JAC, it may be much more difficult to serve as a reliable guardian of the JAC.

Kate Malleson (Queen Mary) and Graham Gee (University of Birmingham) are collaborating with Robert Hazell and Patrick O’Brien (Constitution Unit UCL) on an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence.

 Suggested citation: K. Malleson and G. Gee, ‘Who should have the final say in lower level judicial appointments?’ UK Const. L. Blog (30th January 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)