On a Roll

Over a year into his tenure as Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger is proving to be a popular choice.

Lord Neuberger
Lord Neuberger

Famed for his straight talking and practical thinking, here is a judge who wants the judiciary to become more familiar to the public it serves.

This is becoming a common theme at the top of the judiciary. Supreme Court president Lord Phillips is becoming something of  a television personality given his smiling appearances on several recent court documentaries.

It may be a little premature to write about Neuerger’s legacy, but it is fair to highlight that he is becoming one of the more memorable senior judges of our time. And if his legacy is that we end up with a judiciary that wants justice to be seen, done and understood, then that must be a positive development.

Speaking at the Judicial Studies Board Annual Lecture earlier this month Lord Neuberger called on the judiciary to make greater efforts to make the public more aware of its work.

“The importance of open justice arises from the role it plays in supporting the rule of law,” he said. “Public scrutiny of the courts is an essential means by which we ensure that judges do justice according to law, and thereby secure public confidence in the courts and the law.”

The basis for this lies in judgments and how they are written, the MR said. Put simply, there is “no excuse” for judgments “that are readable by few, and comprehendible by fewer still”.

Judges should be trained by the soon-to-be Judicial College (currently Judicial Studies Board) in the art of judgment writing so that decisions can be more easily conveyed, Neuberger said.

He added that rulings should be “as short as possible”, easy to understand, provide  certainty and simplicity.

A judge should “think not merely of the case and the parties in front of him, but also of the countless potential litigants and their advisers, who will read his judgment, and seek to rely on it,” Neuberger MR said.

On its own, however, delivering straightforward judgments will not open up the courts. Neuberger called for courtroom hearings to be televised to serve the public interest argument, much like the Parliament Channel. This is already happening in Brazil, where the civil legal system is arguably less developed than in London.

“If we wish to increase public confidence in the justice system, transparency and engagement, there’s undoubtedly something to be said for televising some hearings,” Neuberger said.

The Twitter pack should also be encouraged because Neuberger MR, apparently, is a fan.

“It seems to me that, subject again to proper safeguards, the advent of court tweeting should be accepted, provided of course that the tweeting does not interfere with the hearing,” he said.

Moving toward a more transparent judiciary will help to dispel myths about lawmaking and better inform some elements of the media that are intent on blaming the Human Rights Act for the flaws of public sector law.

Commenting on inaccurate press reporting, Neuberger MR states: “Persuasion should be based on truth rather than propaganda. It’s one thing to disagree with a judgment, to disagree with a law and to campaign to change the law, but it’s another thing to misstate what was said in a judgment, or to misstate the law.”

Neuberger is no shrinking violet; he was, after all, the youngest judge to be appointed to the House of Lords in 2007 and was swiftly elevated to the MR role (13 July 2009 https://www.thelawyer.com/lord-neuberger-tipped-as-next-master-of-rolls/1001334.article).

His modern thinking on court transparency is be welcomed. Let’s just hope the rest of the judiciary follows suit.