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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:19 pm, 8th October 2019

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, in my first appearance as Minister in a Westminster Hall debate. I add my congratulations and thanks to those that other Members have offered to Stuart C. McDonald, who secured this timely debate.

I will begin by directly addressing the hon. Gentleman’s question about the independence of the process we have adopted to appoint members of the judiciary. I and the Government as a whole fully support the position articulated by the Lord Chancellor, that judicial appointments should be wholly independent and separate from any interference by politicians of any kind, including any form of parliamentary oversight. Speakers in the debate, including, of course, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, my hon. Friend Robert Neill, have powerfully and eloquently made the case for that approach. If judges are to act impartially as interpreters of the law that Parliament enacts, they cannot be subject to any form of political interference, including at the moment of their appointment. I join the Lord Chancellor and other Members who have spoken in stating clearly that the American system of Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and even elections for some judicial positions, would be wholly inappropriate in this country. It would undermine the principle of judicial impartiality that has prevailed in all four corners of the United Kingdom for so long. I hope that straight away I can give Members reassurance on the critical question in the debate.

The Lord Chancellor has been extremely clear in his comments, both those he made by the modern means of communication, Twitter, in the immediate aftermath of the various judgments that we have discussed, and those he made on the opening of the English and Welsh legal year last Tuesday. I attended that event in Westminster Hall, a few feet from where we are, and in his opening remarks the Lord Chancellor made it clear to the entire assembled judiciary that he would stand in defence of their independence and impartiality. That message was heard loud and clear. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has acknowledged, a couple of hours ago in the main Chamber, in response to a question from the Chair of the Justice Committee, the Lord Chancellor reiterated his and the Government’s unequivocal support for the principle of judicial independence and the independence of the judicial appointments process.

That process was established and put on a statutory footing in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. As has been said, prior to that the Lord Chancellor exercised the power on advice from civil servants, but since the Act was passed the Judicial Appointments Commission has made recommendations, which the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals approve. However, the Judicial Appointments Commission is essentially the body that makes the recommendations and whose voice is decisive. I join the Chair of the Justice Committee in thanking Lord Kakkar, the commission chairman, for his work and that of his fellow commissioners—both lay and lawyers.

On at least two occasions in recent years the work of the Judicial Appointments Commission has been examined. A House of Lords Committee scrutinised the process in 2012, and during the passage of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 a great deal of work was done, looking at the process by which the judiciary are appointed. Recommendations were made and they were enacted in the 2013 Act, which amended the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. They included transferring responsibility for the selection of deputy High Court judges to the JAC. JAC lay commissioners were also allowed greater involvement in more senior judicial appointments above the High Court, including chairmanship of the panel to select the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court. The latter is done in rotation with their counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and Joanna Cherry will be pleased to hear. The process under which the JAC currently operates is a good and effective one. It received significant scrutiny in 2012 and 2013 and I can confirm that the Government have no intention of altering the process.

The shadow Minister, Yasmin Qureshi, drew attention to the fact that England and Wales is an international jurisdiction of choice for many litigants whose cases do not directly relate to the United Kingdom. I know less about Scotland in that respect, and would be happy to hear about it. Such litigants choose to use our courts because of their reputation for impartiality, effectiveness and sound decision making. There could be no greater vote of confidence in our courts system than the fact that so many people from around the world choose it. I add my thanks to those that the hon. Lady expressed to all the judiciary, from the magistracy to the Supreme Court, for the work they do to uphold the rule of law and for being a beacon of impartiality and sound judgment around the world.

Some hon. Members raised the topic of the composition of the judiciary, including the retirement age. That is currently 70, but it was older in the past. The Chair of the Justice Committee drew attention to the fact that many capable members of the bench, at all levels, retire while still exercising their functions at a high level and with the benefit of many years’ experience. I saw that at my local Crown court in Croydon. The chairman of the bench there had retired at the age of 70 a year or so ago—in his prime, I would say. The Government and the Ministry of Justice have heard the message from several quarters this afternoon and have listened carefully. We are considering the comments carefully and I suspect that we will consult on the matter before too long.