Judges appointed by secret 'whispers'

The appointment of judges will remain unfair and secretive if the recommendations of the Conservative dominated Home Affairs Committee are followed.

So say women and black lawyers after the publication of a Home Affairs Committee report which recommends that judges should continue to be appointed by secret soundings of senior barristers.

The committee also says the Lord Chancellor should widen his system of consultation, taking soundings from senior silks and Bar and Law Society council members “where it is not already the practice to do so”.

The committee, chaired by Conservative MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, alongside three Tory and three Labour MPs, rejected Labour's idea of an independent commission to appoint judges and turned down open advertisement and competition for senior posts.

It also rejected positive discrimination: “We agree with the Lord Chancellor that ethnic minority practitioners might enhance their prospects, both within the profession and for judicial appointment, by joining general practices or chambers.”

Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, said: “Most people know that black lawyers are applying for general chambers but do not get appointed. It is not the black lawyers that need encouraging.

“The Bar Council has figures to show that black lawyers are three time less likely to obtain a tenancy or to get a pupillage.”

Jo Hayes, chair of the Association of Women Barristers, pointed out that most High Court judges were QCs. “Because the proportion of QCs has hovered at 5 per cent for many years, the chances of significant numbers of women becoming full-time High Court judges in the next few years are negligible.” She said more flexible work practices would benefit women barristers who wanted to become High Court judges.

Isabel Manley, of The Law Centres Federation, commented: “Appointments will still be based not on objective tests of legal knowledge but on sifting a bag of whispers collected from the profession.”

She said the UK could face costly discrimination claims as a result. A Swedish woman judge, Brita Sundberg-Weitman, is currently taking her government to court over its nomination of a less-qualified man to be a judge in the European Court of Justice.

Lord Mackay said: “I am pleased the committee found so much to value in the current appointments system. It has commended my recent programme of appointments and has concluded there is no need for large-scale change.”

He said he was keen to ensure more women and ethnic judges were appointed.