Embargo: 00:01 Thursday 26 July 2007
Contact: Owen Williams 020 7219 8659
LORDS CONSTITUTION COMMITTEE ATTACK BUNGLED CREATION OF MoJ AND CRITICISE LORD FALCONER FOR FAILING TO PROTECT JUDGES FROM MEDIA ATTACKS
The House of Lords Constitution Committee have today criticised former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer for his slowness in fulfilling his responsibility to defend the judge who passed sentence on paedophile Craig Sweeney from attacks by fellow ministers. The Committee are also critical of parts of the media for the way they attack judges for their decisions, which apply the laws passed by Parliament, and follow sentencing guidelines.
The criticisms come in the Committee's report
Relations between the executive, the judiciary and Parliament which is published today. The report focuses on the relationship between the three key arms of the state, as well as the creation of the new Ministry of Justice (see below).
The Committee argue that the Sweeney case was the first big test of whether the new relationship between the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary was working properly after the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The Committee state that the Lord Chancellor has a clear duty to ensure ministers do not impugn individual judges and to reprimand those who do overstep the mark. They criticise Lord Falconer for failing to do this sufficiently quickly following John Reid's public criticism of the judge who sentenced Craig Sweeney. The Committee argue that in this first test case of the new relationship âËit is clear that there was a systemic failure'
The Committee make clear that ministers must not violate the independence of judges by making intemperate attacks upon them for doing their job. The Committee recommend the Ministerial Code should be revised to include strongly worded guidelines setting out the principles governing public comment by ministers on individual judges.
The report also condemns sections of the media, particularly the tabloid press, for indulging in âËdistorted and irresponsible coverage of the judiciary'. The Committee point out that judges are often seen by the media as âËfair game' despite the fact that they cannot and should not publicly defend themselves in such situations. The Committee call on the media to show greater restraint in attacking judges for their judgments and sentencing decisions, suggesting they should focus their efforts on persuading the Government to amend the legislation or sentencing guidelines. The Committee further suggest that these principles should be enshrined in the Editors' Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission.
The Committee also set out some measures the judiciary could take to improve understanding of their role and to improve the accuracy of the reporting of judgments and sentencing decisions by the media. They recommend that while judges should never be asked to justify their legal decisions outside the courtroom, they could make more use of press releases explaining their decisions.
The Committee also recommend that the Judicial Communications Office should be more active and assertive in dealing with the media. They suggest it should appoint one or more spokesmen with appropriate legal experience who could directly brief the media to ensure coverage accurately reflects the judgment or sentencing decision. However, the Committee are clear these spokespeople should simply explain decisions, not seek to justify them. They also argue that under no circumstances should judges give off-the-record media briefings like politicians.
Creation of the Ministry of Justice
The Committee consider in detail the creation of the new Ministry of Justice. They are clear that the creation of the MoJ has significant constitutional implications and criticise the Government for not recognising that and trying to suggest it was simply a machinery of government change.
The Committee argue that under the Constitutional Reform Act and the Concordat the Government should treat the judiciary as partners in any constitutional change, not simply as subjects of change. They criticise the Government for failing satisfactorily to consult the judiciary on the proposed changes, with a joint working group set up just ten days before the Prime Minister formally announced the creation of the MoJ and which has still to arrive at public agreement.
Commenting Lord Holme, Chairman of the Committee, said:
"The independence of the judiciary needs to be protected from populist politicians pandering to the prejudices of tabloid editors.
"The Lord Chancellor has a statutory duty to protect judges from inappropriate political criticism and to reprimand ministers who indulge in it. It is clear that in the Sweeney case Lord Falconer failed in that duty and allowed the comments from the Home Secretary to go unchallenged for too long.
"The media should recognise that criticism is generally better directed at the Government which promulgates legislation rather than at judges who implement it.
"With regard to the creation of the new MoJ, we were very disappointed that the Government failed adequately to consult judges on what is clearly an important constitutional change. The Government must learn to treat the judiciary as a constitutional partner, not merely the subject of change"
Notes to Editors
1. The report,
Relations between the executive, the judiciary and Parliament, is published by The Stationery Office, House of Lords Constitution Committee, 6th Report of 2006/07, HL Paper 151.
2. The report will be available online shortly after publication at:
3. The House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee are also today publishing a report on the creation of the MoJ. For more information on their report please see:
4. The Members of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution are:
Lord Holme of Cheltenham
Lord Lyell of Markyate
Lord Morris of Aberavon
Lord Smith of Clifton