Reforms to allow lay people to select the most powerful judicial position in England and Wales are misguided and won't improve diversity
Reforms are currently going through parliament that are attempting to change the perception of the judiciary of England and Wales as being a stuffy, reactionary anomaly in 21st century Britain.
If passed, these reforms would allow the selection panel of the position of Lord Chief Justice – effectively the most powerful judicial position in England and Wales – to be chaired by a lay person rather than a judge, and even for the panel itself to consist of a lay majority. It is hoped that this will encourage more ‘diversity’ in the judiciary.
There are, to my mind, at least two things wrong with this proposal. First, it hardly needs stating that, by definition, a ‘lay’ person is a person without expertise in a given field.
So, according to these new laws, someone with minimal understanding of the law, courtroom proceedings, legal practice and the necessary skills and experience that go to making a good judge – importantly and interestingly, a great barrister does not necessarily equal a great judge – will be responsible for chairing the selection committee that chooses the occupant of the most important legal position in England and Wales and, therefore, the occupant of one of the most important societal roles that exists.
The panel that they preside over, it is being suggested, should consist of a majority of such people, too.
Barristers I have spoken to have unanimously said it is a curious and complex combination of skills and experience that go towards making a good judge. Leaving the judiciary’s and the Bar’s perception in the popular mind aside, why should it not be the case that our Lord Chief Justice should be selected by a combination of his peers and the barristers that are accustomed to appearing before him?
Secondly – ‘diversity’, the politically correct mot juste of the moment. I should say that I believe diversity should be fought for and upheld in its true sense of plurality, civility and cultural and political open-mindedness – but not when it is being used as a fig-leaf for allowing non-experts to wield enormous power in a world of which they know or understand nothing.
Lady Justice Hallett, if selected, would be the first female Lord Chief Justice
Much is being made of the fact that a contender for the position, which becomes vacant in October, is a woman – namely, Lady Justice Hallett. It is true that she would be the first woman to occupy the post if successful, but that is because the Bar has historically, for a variety of reasons, been a male-dominated profession.
As any barrister or solicitor will tell you, that is changing and has been changing for years – but the results of this balancing-out at the very top of the profession will take a while to filter through. Lady Hallett’s appointment would be an indication to everyone that the judiciary is changing, and this doesn’t depend on lay people being appointed to the selection committee.
The position of Lord Chief Justice is of supreme importance to society; to put it in the hands of lay-people is not a sensible move towards ‘diversity’, but a pointless and possibly damaging democritisation of a complex, nuanced process.
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