Blunkett v. the bench: judicial independence to be ‘guaranteed’

At the beginning of the year, the already strained relations between judiciary and the bench reached a new nadir following a ruling by Mr Justice Collins, president of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, which threatened to spectacularly derail the Government’s asylum policy.

An incandescent David Blunkett reminded the judiciary of their place in the greater scheme of things. “I don’t want any mixed messages going out, so I’m making it absolutely clear that we don’t accept what Mr Justice Collins has said,” the Home Secretary fumed on The World At One on BBC Radio 4. “We’ll seek to overturn it. We’ll continue operating a policy that we think is perfectly reasonable and fair.”

This apart, there was good news for judges and lawyers generally last week when Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, revealed to delegates at the Institute of Public Policy Research the contents of the Constitutional Reform Bill. “We intend to enshrine the independence of the judiciary in statute. For the first time ever in Britain, the independence of the judiciary will be provided for explicitly by law,” he said. “Judicial independence is too important to this country and to this Government to be any longer left unspecified, uncodified, unwritten. We want to guarantee judicial independence. And that’s what we’re going to do. Explicitly. Judicial independence: guaranteed.” Ministers are consulting with representatives of the judiciary on the wording of this new statutory protection and, it has been reported, that it might impose a duty on ministers not to criticise judicial decisions.

Only last month Lord Woolf decried “populist ministers” launching “vigorous attacks” in the media on individual judges. “The public has a strong interest that arrangements are put in place to ensure that the judges are safeguarded,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “This is because the individual liberties of the public depend, at the last resort, on the independence of the judiciary, particularly where there are issues between individual citizens and the Government.”

It remains to be seen how Lord Falconer’s good intentions and the principle of judicial independence hold out under ministerial fire. As Mr Blunkett said during his infamous run-in with Judge Collins: “Frankly, I’m fed up with having to deal with a situation where Parliament debates issues and the judges overturn them.”