… and will duck question session at Law Soc conference

THE ASSOCIATION of Women Barristers (AWB) has launched a bitter attack against the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, following his decision to ditch Labour's pre-election pledge to establish a judicial appointments commission.

In June, Lord Irvine had promised to consult over the possibility of setting up an appointments commission, but in a surprise announcement last week he went back on his pledge.

Josephine Hayes, chair of AWB, said she was “gravely concerned” at the move, which she said was made “without any apparent consultation with informed groups”.

She added: “We are surprised the Lord Chancellor should have taken such a decision only a fortnight after having set up a new working group on equal opportunities in judicial appointments and QCs – of which I am a member.

“We have not even started work yet, let alone had time to make recommendations.”

In his announcement, Lord Irvine said his department's workload was too heavy for it to proceed with plans to work on a possible commission.

But he announced a series of measures designed to make judicial appointments fairer. These include:

an annual report to Parliament on judicial appointments;

advertising for High Court judges;

raising the upper age limit for appointments to assistant recorderships from 50 to 53;

more flexibility for judges sitting part-time and an improvement in their appraisal procedures; and

the possibility of an ombudsman to investigate complaints from failed applicants.

The Bar Council and the Law Society welcomed the new measures. But other groups were disappointed by the decision.

Society of Black Lawyers chairman Peter Herbert said: “There is no reason the production of an annual report to Parliament will be any guarantee of fairness or equal treatment being delivered.”

Liberty chair John Wadham said an independent commission was “the only way in the long term of guaranteeing an independent judiciary”. Martin Bowley QC called the decision “deeply regrettable”.

Legal Action Group policy adviser Vicki Chapman said it welcomed the initiatives but hoped the Government would still consider setting up a commission in the future.