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A JUDGE has attacked Government plans to abolish the Independent Tribunals Service (ITS) in the latest of a series of judicial complaints about the erosion of the judiciary's independence.
His Honour Judge Keith Bassingthwaighte, who is president of the ITS, the UK's largest judicial appeals handling body, has spoken out against a proposal to scrap it and replace it with a new body headed by a Government appointed lawyer.
In his official response to the proposals, Judge Bassingthwaighte says the Department of Social Security's plans are a cost-cutting exercise to deprive benefit claimants of the right to appeal to a completely independent body.
The service hears appeals from social security claimants who do not agree with their benefits award. It employs 700 part-time solicitors and is responsible for considering 3,000 appeals a year.
A DSS consultation paper published in July proposed replacing the ITS with a new organisation, the Independent Review Service (IRS).
In his response to the DSS consultation paper on decision-making and appeals, Judge Bassingthwaighte says the proposed IRS "may be described as a review organisation which is separately staffed and run from that which made the original decision, but it is an organisation which operates under the appointment and guidance of the body whose decision it reviews, the DSS".
He goes on to defend the existing system. "The ITS has built up, in the persons of its 60 full-time and part-time chairmen, a level of legal expertise in the field of social security which is the result of consistent investment and training. It is a valuable asset."
Judge Bassingthwaighte adds: "The judicial independence of the tribunal is the citizen's guarantee that rights and responsibilities conferred by law will be enforced fairly and impartially. Social security benefits are frequently a subject of some political controversy. It is essential that the appeals body is, and is seen to be, distanced from political intervention and influence."