New clause 20 — Lords Justices of Appeal

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 4th November 2009.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:45 pm, 4th November 2009

I thank my hon. Friend, who until his spectacular by-election victory was active in the courts day in, day out, as a family law barrister, appearing before judges at different levels of the judiciary and developing an in-depth understanding of what was going on. He is far better qualified than me, and probably than the Minister, to tell the Committee what is happening.

I have a letter from a well known judge, who will, of course, remain nameless. After we had a discussion the other day, he wrote to me:

"There is an arrogance about the JAC which refuses to recognise that the persons most able to judge are those before whom the applicant appears on a regular basis. Instead the task is assigned to persons who have no experience whatsoever of this work. No private company would tolerate such a procedure."

He is right, because the people who are best able to assess the ability of applicants to the Court of Appeal are the judges before whom their decisions and judgments are assessed and appealed against. They know very well the ability of the applicants, and they are best placed to advise the Lord Chancellor. New clause 20 represents a small step, and as part of our reforms of the JAC, we will consider a number of ideas, but it is an important first step to remove judges in the Court of Appeal from the JAC's scope. I urge Ministers and other Members to support that modest proposal and thus reduce the costs of that body. We have ideas for the future, but this is a modest first step forward.

New clause 22 is about written tests. I shall explain for hon. Members who may not know what they are that very often someone applying for a judicial appointment, particularly a more minor one such as that of recorder, district judge or county court judge, is asked to take a written test. Those tests are extremely unpopular and incredibly controversial, and they are very public.

In the past, top QCs, leading solicitors and academics-and patent or trademark attorneys, whom we should not overlook because they can now qualify for judicial appointments-would make their application in confidence. It was kept confidential, because it might well have been turned down, and there is a certain amount of humiliation if a top QC or a managing partner of Allen & Overy applies for an appointment on the High Court bench and is turned down. In the past, no one ever knew that they had applied. Now, they have to take a written test in a public place, and everyone knows that they have done it.

A large number of solicitors and leading QCs tell us that that is having an impact on their practice. They obviously want to keep their clients in place and keep their practice going, and they want to ensure that their partners in their firms and the junior members of their chambers have confidence in them as senior QCs or managing partners. Yet when they apply for a judicial appointment, which in the past would have been kept totally confidential, everyone hears that they have done a test. I am less concerned about whether they fail the test, because I am not saying that it is necessarily unfair, but it is completely unnecessary because it puts the fact of the application into the public domain.

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