Women barristers are to meet the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to put pressure on him to set up Labour's long-planned independent judicial appointments commission, just as Lord Irvine appeared to back away from the commitment.
The proposal to include lay people in the process of appointing judges through an independent judicial appointments commission has been a long-standing Labour pledge. But Lord Irvine shied away from a complete commitment to it in a parliamentary answer he gave last week, when he said: "The Government proposes to consult later this year on the merits of a judicial appointments commission and whether it should be established."
Labour MPs on the Home Affairs Committee, which reviewed the issue last June, voted for the setting up of the commission, which was opposed by Conservatives. But it was not included in the Labour manifesto before last month's election and Irvine avoided mentioning a judicial appointments commission in a speech to the Bar conference last September.
A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) said the issue had "dropped down the list of priorities".
On 10 June, Lord Irvine wrote to Josephine Hayes, chair of the Association of Woman Barristers, agreeing to a meeting with her over the issue of judicial appointments. He wrote: "I am on the public record in recognition of the need to ensure that women candidates apply for appointments." He added that he was determined to make sure that they did.
Hayes said: "Who could disagree with that? But there is no indication that he has decided to come out in favour of a judicial appointments commission."
A front page story in The Times last month, which reported that LCD officials were drawing up proposals to involve lay people in appointing judges, was dismissed by the LCD as "pure speculation".
Before the 1992 general election, Lord Irvine wrote a paper on law reform for the Society of Labour Lawyers stating "a judicial appointments and training commission will be established" because the standards of judges "have not been assisted by secretive methods of selection and the restricted range of people from which they are chosen".
The apparent change of heart may reflect Labour's wish to avoid high-profile public rows with senior judges over politicisation of the judiciary.