Barristers warn of ‘political placemen’ on new judicial watchdog

Barristers warned against the prospect of “political placemen” on the creation of a new judicial watchdog at the Bar Council Annual Conference this weekend.

In his conference speech, chairman of the Bar Council Matthias Kelly QC said that the bar was “watching like hawks” to ensure that the new Judicial Appointments Commission was free from political interference. The Government is planning a new independent commission planned to take over the selection of judges from the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

“We must ensure that politics is removed from the judicial processes for good, so the commission itself must be free from political placemen,” he said. “It must be tough enough to withstand tabloid and Parliamentary battering.”

This, he argued, would have to be the case to ensure a system that was “consistent with the EU statute on the independence of the judiciary and with the UN Charter on the same matter”. Kelly also argued that it was “clear” that the Lord Chancellor must not sit on the new Supreme Court bench, which should comprise judges who are appointed to sit only in the Supreme Court.

The bar chairman also considered Sir David Clementi’s review of self-regulation, which was launched this summer. He noted that the Government had already moved to “clip the wings” of the Law Society on self-regulation through the creation of a Legal Services Complaints Commissioner. “Let me be clear that this gives me no pleasure whatsoever and causes me great alarm,” he said. “Self-regulation lies at the heart of our independence as a profession, but it has to be earned, and I happen to believe that the bar does earn it, and earns it well.”

He pointed to a recent report by the Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO), which found that in 90 per cent of cases referred to the LSO there was no cause for recommendation against, or criticism of, the Bar Council or the barrister involved.

Kelly argued that the reform of legal services regulation was brought “under the cosy banner of one-stop shops and Tesco law”, which he called “a kind of free-for-all in legal services, where cost is king and quality can take a hike”.

“My real concern is that the forces lobbying so darkly and forcefully for loosening up in this area are the very large accountancy firms, which are poised to reduce choice and corner markets in a way which cannot possibly serve the client interest,” he said. “The accountancy profession has its own Augean stables to clean out in the wake of the Enron horror show.” Pressure to keep separate audit and consultancy client work must mean “a grand canyon of probity between such work and legal advice”, he argued.

“That’s why we say a firm ‘no’ to the Enronisation of the legal profession through the purported yet dubious benefits of multidisciplinary practices,” argued Kelly.