Neuberger gains political clout after attacking Supreme Court
14 September 2009 | By Katy Dowell
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Lord Justice David Neuberger’s appointment as Master of the Rolls (MR), a position he will take up next month, is being hailed by many as signalling a thawing of relations between the judiciary and the political world.
But last week Neuberger LJ launched an attack on the creation of the Supreme Court, alleging that it will have unintended consequences for the UK constitution.
Neuberger LJ set the tone of his reign by going on the record to lambast the creation of the court, in what some believe was a political manoeuvre.
“To change […] the Law Lords into the Supreme Court as a result of what appears to have been a last-minute decision over a glass of whisky seems to me to verge on the frivolous,” he told a BBC documentary. “The danger is you muck around with a constitution at your peril, because you don’t know what the consequences of any change will be.”
Neuberger LJ is not the first MR to speak out against the Supreme Court. There has long been debate around what real benefit the new court could bring.
Those tensions have since been laid to rest and the new Supreme Justices are working hard to embrace their new home. Baroness Hale has been busy showing the media around the new court building, the highlight of which appears to be a carpet designed by Peter Blake, who also designed the cover of The Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Law Lords have traditionally shied away from the media. Now Neuberger LJ has shunted them into the limelight by insinuating that their judgments may be more independent than they were in the House of Lords.
“The House of Lords was always independent,” responds Chancery Bar Association chair Michael Todd QC. “The Supreme Court will not take on a life of its own. I don’t think it’ll show any more independence than the House of Lords.”
This publicity may work to Neuberger LJ’s advantage when Lord Justice Jackson feeds back his review on civil litigation costs.
As MR, Neuberger LJ will be responsible for driving through any changes recommended by Jackson LJ, some of which will need primary legislation.
This is a long-term concern because issues surrounding the court system will undoubtedly be put to the bottom of the inbox if a new government comes to power next May.
By raising his profile now and putting forward his views on the new court, Neuberger LJ is already strengthening his political voice.
If Jackson LJ’s report suggests that constitutional reform is needed, Neuberger LJ will need to wield his power to force the Government to take the report seriously.
“My own view is that he’ll make more of an impression than [current MR Anthony] Clarke did,” a senior barristers says. “His personality is different - he’s prepared to speak out.”
Neuberger LJ certainly has plenty of supporters in the legal profession. Edwin Coe litigation chief David Greene says: “We love him. Most practitioners think of Neuberger as a steady hand on the tiller and as a very reasonable and sensible judge. It was for those reasons he was elevated at such a swift rate.”
Neuberger LJ took the fast track to the MR position. He was called to the bar in 1974, took silk in 1987, became a High Court judge in 1996 and was elevated to the House of Lords in 2004.
“He’s a well-liked chap,” one barrister comments. “Very savvy. He deserves the MR post.”
That said, Greene believes Neuberger LJ’s efforts to effect any constitutional change will be hampered by the impending general election, although he believes that the MR may be
well-positioned to bring about other reforms.
Much is expected from Neuberger LJ’s tenancy. With his willingness to be outspoken, Neuberger LJ is clearly calculating the long-term effect. This MR will be no shrinking violet.