Procedure for Appointing Judges — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:42 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee 2:42 pm, 8th October 2019

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me and I fall into the trap willingly: I entirely agree with him. It is a great shame that we have seen the retirement recently of very distinguished and able judges simply by effluxion of time. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Sir Brian Leveson, Lady Hallett—I was delighted to see her gain a peerage—and others still have much to offer the bench. When we have real difficulty with the recruitment and retention of the highest quality judges, it seems absurd to me to set 70, which most of us would regard as the new 50—certainly those of us who are getting nearer to it—as the limit. We are cutting people off at the height of their professional powers. They have much more to offer and, interestingly, will very often be found, perfectly legitimately and properly, exercising their skills as arbitrators or mediators in commercial jurisdictions, when they would be very happy to continue exercising those skills in high public office as members of the judiciary.

I earnestly hope that one message the Minister takes back to the Lord Chancellor, who I know is apprised of the matter, is that if we have a legislative opportunity in the new Session, we should tack on a clause to increase the judicial retirement age to 75. That would be warmly welcomed. There is more that we need to do at the other end in terms of diversity. There have been improvements, but Keith Vaz is right that we need in particular to improve black, Asian and minority ethnic representation in the judiciary. There are signs of improvement, but there is much more to do.

We have made improvements in relation to gender diversity, but ethnic diversity is something that we still need to work on, as well as perhaps social background more generally. As a member of the Bar, I recognise the potential value of recruiting solicitor judges in broadening the social background base of the profession. There are now some very good and able solicitor judges, and I hope that we can encourage that too.

In a short speech, I wanted to reinforce what the Lord Chancellor, who is admirably playing his role in defending the independence of the judiciary, has said, and to recognise the point fairly made by my hon. Friend John Howell that the independence of the judiciary is not just important in terms of the checks and balances of our own constitution, which are critical, but wholly consistent with our international obligations. My hon. Friend serves as a distinguished member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is something that I have had the pleasure of doing, as have you, Mr Sharma. We all know that Britain is looked up to by our colleagues because of the independence of our judiciary. How would we be able to exercise restraint on some of the emerging democracies in eastern and central Europe, where such independence is not always to be found, were we to do anything that diluted our judicial independence?

It is important that we maintain judicial independence to meet our obligations under article 6 of the European convention, never mind article 14 of the international covenant on civil and political rights and, of course, the UN basic principles on the independence of the judiciary. If we want Britain to remain a world leader in high esteem, maintaining the independence of the judiciary is critical. I hope that the debate will enable us to send a message to all at large that we recognise the checks and balances that are implicit in, and that underpin, our constitution, and that the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the acceptance of its independence by all, whether we agree with an individual decision or not, are crucial to our national wellbeing.