The Maximum Number of Judges Order (Northern Ireland) 2020

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 14th December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 6:00 pm, 14th December 2020

For clarity, Mr Allister's point is that the part-time judges whom the Department appointed were temporary judges but that pro rata appointments would be made by the bench and go through NIJAC's procedures and would be permanent. As well as that, they would be reduced-hours positions, so that shows the difference between the two. A part-time, pro rata judge would therefore count as one judge, and that is why we would need the extra headroom: in order to multiply. Those who were appointed by the Department are temporary, so that is one of the reasons.

When it comes to judicial diversity , it is important to make the point that, when NIJAC makes its appointments, whether it be to the judiciary generally or, indeed, when it comes to issues such as the Court of Appeal, those appointments are made solely on the basis of merit, and it is correct that it ought to be so. We should, however, look at what barriers there may be to people entering those competitions to become judges or other members of the judiciary and progressing through the ranks. One such barrier may be the lack of flexibility around working, and that is one of the reasons that we are looking at the creation of part-time judges.

I thought that it would be important to give an overview of the diversity issues that we have, particularly around gender breakdown, in the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Across the salaried judiciary, from the Lord Chief Justice to the coroners, the headline figure is 40 males and 23 females. When that figure is broken down, however, there are quite significant differences across the hierarchy. The Lord Chief Justice is male, as we know. There are two Lords Justices of Appeal who are male, while the third position is currently vacant. There are eight male and two female High Court judges. There are 11 male and seven female County Court judges, and two vacant positions. There are 12 male and seven female Magistrates' Court judges. There are one male and two female district court judges; three male and four female masters of the High Court; and two male and one female coroners.

Breaking the figures down by age shows that there is a range of ages. If we look in particular at lay magistrates, however, the youngest are in the 40-to-44 age bracket. That continues up to the 65-to-69 age bracket, because, as the Member will be aware, lay magistrates have to retire from the judiciary at the age of 70, although I believe that that may be under review. Increasing judicial diversity here is important, and it is the role of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission to promote it. That is an outcome that I fully support. I take on board people's concerns that they need to see a reflection of their identity and background at some level in the court system among those who are their peers as jurors, but they also need to see that reflected among those who represent the court itself. That is an important outcome.

To that end, it is hoped that the creation of additional headroom now through the draft order will allow for the future appointment of part-time judges, which may add to the potential pool of applicants.

Court advocacy is not an essential requirement for High Court appointments. The Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission is keen to attract applicants from a broad range of skilled lawyers, regardless of professional background.

In closing, I will outline the qualifications needed to be a High Court judge, because there may be people out there who feel that only certain people can apply for the role. A High Court judge must be either a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland of at least 10 years' standing or a solicitor of the Court of Judicature of at least 10 years' standing. Therefore, experienced people in legal practice have the ability to apply, and I encourage them to apply when such vacancies come forward. It is hugely important that we have a diverse judiciary, but also that we have an effective judiciary that is based on appointment on merit.

I commend the order to the House. I believe —.