Constitutional Affairs Committee

Press Notice/ 05 of Session 2003-04 9 February 2004


Committee concern over undue haste on far reaching judicial reform proposals that have been 'bundled together'

Far reaching government proposals to introduce a new supreme court and change the system for judicial appointments have been too rushed, the consultation process has been too short and the legislative timetable too restrictive, concludes a report issued today by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs.

The cross party report recommends more time is needed to enable proper scrutiny of these complex, fundamental changes and concludes that the reason for such haste appears to be primarily political. It adds that the proposed changes could have been brought in incrementally.

Members believe that the abolition of the Office of Lord Chancellor should be delayed until reforms are established. They also say that Parliament should be able to conduct detailed scrutiny of the proposals in the form of draft legislation.

Finding suitable accommodation for the new Supreme Court is proving to be a major problem, say MPs. As a result, they conclude that the timing of the introduction of the new Court should be adjusted to ensure the new court can commence its work in an appropriate location.

On proposals for judicial appointments, the Committee welcomes the push to improve diversity and transparency. They also point out that the current system works well and that any changes must lead to identifiable improvements.

The conclusions are the result of a lengthy inquiry, including written and oral evidence taking, which examined proposals that were announced as a result of the government's decision to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor.

Commenting, Committee Chairman Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:

"Whatever the precise nature of reform, the eventual system must command public confidence, guarantee the judiciary's independence and ensure rigorous standards are maintained.

"It is a matter of considerable regret that these proposals were formulated and announced in a way that was hurried and evidently without the knowledge of many of those who should have been extensively consulted. It has created anxieties amongst senior members of the judiciary and has not helped the case of those who support genuine reform and progress.

"The government should introduce its proposals in the form of draft legislation to enable proper parliamentary scrutiny of such fundamental propositions. If this course of action is followed, it is likely that many of the arrangements could be agreed on a consensual basis."

Other specific findings and recommendations include:

- Legislation establishing the new court should make clear its jurisdiction. It needs to establish the extent to which it is a UK court as opposed to a final court of appeal serving each of the UK's three legal jurisdictions.

- The new court will need specialists and representatives from each of the three legal jurisdictions and these arrangements should be clearly specified in legislation.

- Vacancies in the new court should be publicised and open to application in line with most other public service appointments. It will still be necessary for some element of active searching for candidates to take place.

- The Committee did not back the idea of confirmation hearings by MPs when new judges are appointed, but welcomed the fact that judges now appear before it and other Commons Committees, which could assist public understanding of their work.

- Diversity should be a clear objective of the new Judicial Appointments Commission