Open doors for an open judiciary

The Lord Chancellor has announced the introduction of new procedures to deal with the appointment of assistant recorders.

Assistant recordership is one of the principal points of entry to the judiciary and is a testing ground for those who wish to progress to the Circuit Bench. The extension of the new procedures to this level of the judiciary is therefore an important step in the Lord Chancellor's plans to ensure the judicial appointments system is as open and fair as possible.

Under the new procedures, which were introduced for the first time for appointments to the Circuit and District Bench in 1994, job descriptions and criteria for appointment for judicial posts are published. This means neither candidates nor the public should be ignorant of the qualities the Lord Chancellor looks for in applicants for judicial appointment.

Assistant recordership vacancies will be advertised in national newspapers and legal journals. Applicants will be asked to fill in an application form and shortlisted candidates will then be invited to be interviewed by a panel consisting of a circuit judge or recorder, a lay person and an official of the Judicial Appointments Group.

The introduction of a lay person to the interview process allows a member of the public to become involved at first hand with judicial appointments procedures. Lay interviewers bring the perspective of the court user to the selection process. All lay interviewers will have experience of the justice system and of selection interviewing, many in the private sector.

One aspect of the process which will remain confidential is the comments of serving judges and senior members of the legal profession about applicants.

It is difficult to see how else the Lord Chancellor can ensure he gets the full and frank views needed on each applicant from those in the best position to assess the suitability of candidates for appointment. Those recruiting individuals elsewhere both in the public and private sectors preserve the confidentiality of references for the same reason.

Applicants for assistant recordership will also benefit from the fact that under the new system applications will be decided within 12 months; under present arrangements applications can be under consideration for some years.

The cardinal principle for judicial appointment remains that selection must be on merit. The criteria applied in the selection process are designed to ensure all members of the judiciary have the abilities, legal knowledge and personal qualities to justify public confidence in them.

In selecting judges, the Lord Chancellor has no regard to gender, ethnic origin, religion, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or (subject to the physical requirements of the office) disability. However, the legal experience which judges need means that they are drawn from the ranks of practitioners who joined the profession some years ago.

This has, in the past, limited the number of women and members of ethnic minority communities who are eligible for appointment. The Lord Chancellor can only select from those who put their names forward, but he does take every opportunity to encourage women and ethnic minority candidates to apply for judicial appointment.

In conjunction with the Bar Council and the Law Society, the Judicial Appointments Group has organised a number of events for female barristers and solicitors. Similar events have been held for members of the legal profession of ethnic minority origin. The aim of these occasions is to provide those present with information about judicial appointments, and answer any questions or concerns.

In a recent article in The Lawyer, Peter Weiss said the most common complaint levelled against the Lord Chancellor's Department was that the judicial appointments process was hidden from the public. This complaint is wide of the mark; the truth is that the system has become increasingly open to public scrutiny over recent years.

Further details of the judicial appointments system can be found in a new series of publications explaining the judicial appointments procedures which the Lord Chancellor has also issued. Free copies can be obtained from the Judicial Appointments Group of the Lord Chancellor's Department on 0171 210 1438.