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Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Part of Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 25th March 2004.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 11:00 am, 25th March 2004

This has been a lengthy debate, and I do not want to take up too much more of the Committee's time. Amendment No. 1 was the key amendment, but we have rather wandered away from the central issue, which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland very cogently explained.

The 2002 Act did not provide for judicial members of the Judicial Appointments Commission to reflect the community as a whole, but the Bill does. When the matter was considered in another place, various points were made about how difficult it is to find the right people to sit on the commission, given the small pool of judges from which candidates can be drawn. It is slightly strange, therefore, that we should introduce to the Bill a measure that provides—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—for judicial members to be bracketed according to how they might reflect the wider community.

As the Minister knows, the Opposition support the principle that the judiciary should reflect the community as a whole, although we also emphasise that judges must be appointed on merit. Once judges are so appointed, when does one end the scrutiny of the commission's composition? Must every sub-committee reflect the community as a whole? That is the road down which the Government have chosen to go.

When members of the judiciary are being chosen from the very small pool of available talent to sit on the commission, it appears that the Government now think it appropriate that their religious background—

that is what we are talking about—should be one of the factors considered. That bothers me.

I realise that circumstances in Northern Ireland are unusual, and heaven knows we have introduced enough legislation over the past few years to try to accommodate that, including setting up a system of devolved government of the most bizarre kind. I have always accepted it, given that it may be the only way forward, but the way it operates is, indeed, bizarre. This is my point: having chosen people to be judges—therefore, the assumption is that they are capable of discharging their functions without fear or favour and without bias—are we then to say that those who will sit on the Judicial Appointments Commission must be vetted for external appearances rather than on the basis of their judgment or whether they can make a proper contribution to how the commission operates? It bothers me that we are doing that.

We are breaking down the scrutiny of who is or is not to be appointed almost to the point of absurdity. I can see the force of the argument when it comes to lay representation, because that will be a highly politicised issue, but I ask the Minister to think carefully about taking the same approach with the judiciary.

I think that there is a majority of Roman Catholic judges in the High Court in Northern Ireland. I may be wrong about that, although I see that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann is nodding. I must say that I am totally ignorant of the religious affiliation of senior judges in Northern Ireland, just as I have not the slightest clue about the affiliations of judges in England. That is as it should be. Are we really to say that someone who would be right for appointment to the commission because he has taken a great interest in the recruitment of judges and in the professional advancement of those in the solicitors' profession and those at the Bar could not be appointed because the balance meant that the commission needed either a Protestant or Catholic? That would be most unfortunate.

It may be a distant aim, but we should be striving for a day in Northern Ireland when the question of people's religious affiliation is, as it should be, a total irrelevance. Then we could get rid of the complex legislative structure that tries to provide balance. If we cannot even make a start with those who have passed the scrutiny test in becoming judges in the first place, I despair. This troubles me, and I believe that amendment No. 1 has a great deal of force.