Family law/judiciary. The Lord or the Master?

Commentary on the Woolf report has concentrated on changes in procedure, but Lord Woolf also looked at the structure of the civil courts and asked who is in charge of the civil courts system. The same question could be asked about the criminal courts. With Lord Woolf now appointed as Master of the Rolls and Lord Bingham as Lord Chief Justice, the time seems ripe to clarify their respective responsibilities.

The Master of the Rolls is president of the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and the Lord Chief Justice president of the Criminal Division, so superficially the Master of the Rolls would appear to be in charge of the civil courts and the Lord Chief Justice in charge of the criminal courts.

However, the Master of the Rolls has no involvement in the High Court, the largest Division of which (the Queens Bench Division) is headed by the Lord Chief Justice. As a final complication the Queens Bench

Divisional Court hears all appeals from the magistrates courts, so making it part of the criminal as well as the civil courts system. Neither the Master nor the Chief Justice has clear functions, powers or responsibilities and there is no judge who is specifically responsible for either the civil or the criminal courts.

As part of his proposals Lord Woolf suggested that there should be a single head of civil justice and that one of the two presiding judges in each circuit should be specifically responsible for civil justice, with the other responsible for criminal justice. The simplest solution to the problems Lord Woolf identified is for the Master of the Rolls to become head of the civil courts system and for the Lord Chief Justice to become head of the criminal courts.

This should be done by the Master remaining president of the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and also becoming president of the Queens Bench Division. He should be responsible for appointing a Presiding Judge (civil courts) in each circuit and should be ultimately responsible for the rules and practice directions applying throughout the civil courts system. He should also make an annual report to the Lord Chancellor and Parliament on the workings of the civil courts.

The Lord Chief Justice should remain president of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) which should become responsible for magistrates courts as well as crown court appeals. He should become president of the crown court and responsible for appointing a Presiding Judge (criminal courts) in each circuit. The presiding judge should be specifically required to liaise with the magistrates courts as well as the crown courts in his circuit. The Chief Justice should be responsible for the rules and practice directions applying throughout the criminal courts system (magistrates courts as well as crown courts) and should make an annual report on them.

Such changes would not make the criminal courts suddenly better. But they would make the system more rational and provide clearer judicial and personal responsibility for the long-term development of both systems. In an age of increasing media and political interest in the workings of the courts, ambiguous lines of responsibility and a confusing overlapping of roles is a weakness the judiciary could well do without.