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The dramatic increase in public law and human rights cases coming before the UK Supreme Court (and the Appellate Committee before it) means that the UK’s top court is more frequently determining essentially socio-political questions. In addition, in recent years, the judiciary has pressed for a rather more expansive definition of judicial independence, with a greater emphasis on the institutional independence of the judiciary. This has tended to lead to more powerful leadership roles, for senior judges in particular.
These changes, coupled with a greater focus – by both the judiciary and the executive – on the doctrine of the separation of powers, has resultedin judges taking responsibility for matters which, prior to theConstitutional Reform Act 2005, would most likely have been left to the Lord Chancellor (and his former Department). In the light of this expanding judicial role, now seems an appropriate time to question whether any new mechanisms for increasing political accountability, such as a parliamentary confirmation procedure, are needed for appointment to the most senior judicial offices (including, but perhaps not limited to, the UK Supreme Court, given the growing managerial roles played by the Lord Chief Justice and Heads of Division).
Confirmation processes are often dismissed out of hand – frequently with negative references to the partisan approach seen in the United States of America. Lord Neuberger (then Master of the Rolls) captured the common view of hearings before the USSenate Judiciary Committee, when he observed:
“Once you start muddying the water and involving the legislature in the appointment of judges, you risk going down a slippery slope, not quite knowing where it will end. The last thing that we want is the sort of thing you see in the United States. I do not pretend that it happens with every appointment to the Supreme Court but we all remember interviews and proposed appointments that led to something of a jamboree or a circus. I do not think that we want that.” (Evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, November 2011)
Of courseviews on the US experience do not go entirely one way. Graham Gee has previously considered whether the lessons drawn by UK commentators are necessarily justified; suggesting that most hearings do not generate political conflict and that in any event, “hearings are not the primary source of the politicization of the process” given the important role that partisan considerations play in the President ‘s nominations for the federal bench. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that a knee jerk reaction against the US procedure remains commonplace.
Critics of hearings frequently point to the potential impact on judicial independence. In its report on Judicial Appointments, published in March 2012, the House of Lords Constitution Committee summarised many of the oft-heard objections when it concluded that:
“Parliamentarians should not hold pre- or post-appointment hearings of judicial candidates, nor should they sit on selection panels. Political considerations would undoubtedly inform both the selection of parliamentarians to sit on the relevant committees or panels and the choice of questions to be asked.”
In spite of this, issues around judicial independence and accountability are now receiving more interest from academics and some parliamentarians. The question of whether to introduce parliamentary hearings received some attention during the consideration of theconstitutional reformswhich eventually led to the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Scholars such as Keith Ewing and Robert Hazell and the former Permanent Secretary of the then Lord Chancellor’s Department, Sir Thomas Legg QC,argued that nominees for the new Supreme Court could be interviewed or confirmed by Parliament. The Study of Parliament Group published The Changing Constitution: A Case for Judicial Confirmation Hearings?, a short report by this author, in 2010. Areport by Policy Exchange in 2011 suggested that:
“[A] more radical approach to judicial selection should at least be considered – namely legislative oversight of appointments to the Supreme Court. This would have the advantage of ensuring that judges retained their independence, but would be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny prior to their appointment.” (Policy Exchange, Bringing Rights Back Home)
And in 2012, the think-tank CentreForum published a report by Professor Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson, entitled Guarding the Guardians (the title may give some clue as to their conclusions).
The recently concluded project on the Politics of Judicial Independence, involving the Constitution Unit, Queen Mary and the University of Birmingham, is another good example – posing challenging questions about the balance between judicial independence and accountability – asking“who is now accountable for the judiciary, and to whom?” and “what are the proper limits of judicial independence?”. Views on the subject of confirmation hearings were splitin a seminar on the subject of Judicial Independence, Judicial Accountability and the Separation of Powers, but a number of potential advantages were identified, including the fact that hearings could enhance the legitimacy of judges. Moreover, recent experience of the introduction of hearings in Canada, addressed in a series of articles (e.g. Peter Hogg, Appointment of Justice Marshall Rothstein to the Supreme Court of Canada, (2006) 44 Osgoode Hall Law Journal 527), suggest that one does not have to emulate the contentious US model.
Following in the footsteps of these earlier studies, the Study of Parliament Group has just published a new research paper, by the author of this post, entitled Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process? It seeks to address some of the conceptual arguments for greater political accountability in the appointment process and also considers the expanding ambit of judicial independence. Focusing on whether parliamentarians should have a role in the judicial appointments process, it asks what is meant by political accountability in the context of judicial appointments and considers what evidence there is that greater accountability is necessary.
The paper examines whether new methods of accountability could be introduced in the UK without impacting on judicial independence, and seeks to shed light on these questions by assessing the recent move by the UK Parliament to introduce pre-appointment hearings for other public appointments. Finally, it evaluates whether such processes are readily transferable and, if so, whether UK parliamentary committees are well placed to undertake this task.
The paper concludes that the introduction of pre-appointment hearings for the most senior judicial appointments would have a number of benefits and could help ensure that independent and robust candidates are appointed. As to the question of politicisation, it considers that as long as there is a continued role for an independent judicial appointments commission to recruit and screen candidates at first instance, any significant politicisation of the process could be avoided.
Whether recent examples of workable models from the UK, or from other jurisdictions, can convince the senior judiciary of the merits of such a change is clearly open to some doubt. But the author hopes that this new work might nonetheless inform any future debate on these issues.
This blog post is published to coincide with the launch of a new Study of Parliament Group Research Paper on Judicial Appointments.
Alexander Horne is a Barrister (Lincoln’s Inn) and is currently the Legal and Senior Policy Adviser at the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit. The SPG Paper ‘Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?’ is based on an MPhil thesis undertaken part-time at Queen Mary, University of London between 2010-13. The views expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to reflect the views of any other person or organisation.
(Suggested Citation: A. Horne, ‘Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (27th March 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).